Letter from Cairo — From the August 2014 issue

Return of the Strongman

How did Egypt revert to dictatorship?

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 10 )

President Mohamed Mohamed Morsi Isa al-Ayyat: it still sounds unbelievable. Just over a year ago, a member of the decades-banned Muslim Brotherhood was the leader of all Egyptians, sleeping in the same Persian-carpeted palace Mubarak and the wife he affectionately referred to as Suzy once roamed. This was what the telegenic 2011 revolution had wrought: one man, one vote. The people had spoken, though Morsi’s detractors would point out that he had won by a hair (51.7 percent of the vote). Morsi’s political missteps soon began piling up. The new president issued an extra-constitutional decree that gave him sweeping powers even his predecessor hadn’t had. He bungled the economy in the name of a vaguely defined “Renaissance Project.” He alienated potential political allies — the judiciary, the police, the army — by favoring members of the Brotherhood in his political dealings. He green-lighted a constitution drafted by a Brotherhood-dominated parliament that failed to adequately protect the rights of women and minorities. When things went wrong, he blamed the felool, the dregs of the former regime. He also irked many with his uncouth behavior: when he met his Australian counterpart — a lady — he adjusted his balls on camera. It was not uncommon for people to refer to him as a monkey.

There were wild rumors about his plans for the three remaining years promised him: annex the Gaza Strip, blow up the Sphinx, ban the ballet (because of all the erotic costumery). A breaking point came in June 2013, when he appointed as governor of Luxor a former member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Islamist group responsible for killing fifty-eight tourists and four Egyptians in an attack on the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1997. The appointment roused fears that the Brotherhood’s commitment to nonviolence was insincere (the organization officially renounced political violence in the Forties).

Fireworks light the sky after demonstrations turn to celebrations in and around Tahrir Square following Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and arrest by the military, July 3, 2013 © Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR

Fireworks light the sky after demonstrations turn to celebrations in and around Tahrir Square following Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and arrest by the military, July 3, 2013 © Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR

And then came the petition. Branded Tamarod — “rebellion” in Arabic — and drafted by a group of youthful activists, its language was fresh and secular and laid the blame for the miserable state of the country on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. (“I withdraw confidence from the President of the Republic. . . . I hold fast to the goals of the revolution,” it read.) Organizers said they had collected 22 million signatures, though the number was impossible to verify. When, on June 30, 2013, millions of Egyptians descended into the streets — hundreds of thousands of them back to Tahrir Square, where they had unseated Mubarak just two and a half years before — it was with Tamarod’s imprimatur.

These protests, the newscasters said, were even bigger than those of the 2011 revolution. The BBC reported that they might be the biggest in human history. The superlative, though swiftly retracted, went viral and took on the aura of truth. Some simply referred to the events as Egypt’s second revolution. A friend who went to the square that day with her mother sent me a text message that read: “We did it again.” In that moment, I didn’t know what she meant. In many ways, I still don’t.

On July 3, 2013, with Tahrir Square and other gathering spots around the country still crowded with Egyptians, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — then commander of the armed forces — stood before state-television cameras and, in a coolly laconic manner, announced that Morsi had been deposed. With that, the first freely elected president in the country’s history was out of a job — kidnapped, actually. It was only some weeks later that we learned that, like his predecessor, he was in detention. Another president, another set of prison bars. We did it again.

For the second time in three years, the military had stepped in to steward a leaderless country. And for the second time, a majority of Egyptians feted them. Military jets drew loopy hearts of smoke in the sky above an ecstatic crowd in Tahrir. The army and the people are one hand, the decades-old saying goes.

Yet to Morsi’s supporters, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the men in uniform had undone a free and fair election. The term “coup d’état” spread among the Morsi faithful. Thousands of them gathered shoulder to shoulder in two huge sit-ins — one in al-Nahda Square, not far from Cairo University, and the other one, larger, outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in the high-rise-heavy suburb of Nasr City. Both sit-ins, it turned out, would end badly.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
is a senior editor of Bidoun.

More from Negar Azimi:

Notebook From the June 2009 issue


Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


October 2019


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.