The Corner

The Real Story Behind the Egyptian Generals’ Crackdown on the Brotherhood

The lead story in the New York Times today breaks the news that the army is running things in Egypt and is taking a hard line.

The Times story highlights the return to power of General Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy, apparently a notorious advocate of crushing the Muslim Brotherhood. Tohamy now heads the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, a position of immense power in Egypt and which he got because General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who is Egypt’s leader today, is General Tohamy’s protégé. The Times story also suggests that lots of Egyptian generals, including Tohamy, are corrupt.

None of this is news, of course. Few Egyptian generals have ever had to go on welfare after retiring, and the crack-down on the Brotherhood has been visible since the day the army removed Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt.

That makes it fair to ask why the Times wants us to consider this a very big story. The answer probably lies in two places. They found a former official who talked at length about Tohamy’s sins, and they want us to rise up in protest at the crushing of the Brotherhood by Tohamy and his subordinates.

But the Times is missing two more-interesting storylines. The first is the contrast between current Egyptian army policy toward the MB and that of Hosni Mubarak during his 30 years in power. For Mubarak did not crush the MB; he played footsie with it. In the last parliamentary election over which Mubarak presided, he permitted the MB to win 95 seats — fewer no doubt than they would have had in a free election but far from draconian treatment. When Mubarak fell, where were the leaders of the MB? In prison? In exile? Nope — they were in Cairo, where the top MB political leader, Khairat al-Shater, was a multi-millionaire businessman.

The interesting story here is that Mubarak’s successors have decided that that policy was a mistake, and one that led directly to the MB’s election victories and rise to power. They don’t plan to permit this to happen again, so they are acting against the MB in every way they can: shooting demonstrators, jailing leaders, seizing MB funds, and outlawing the organization and its activities. Mubarak’s approach has been rejected as too soft and too dangerous.

This leaves the generals with a problem: What do they have to say to the half of all voters who, in the presidential election of June 2012, backed Morsi? Even if support for the MB has fallen now to perhaps only 25 percent or 15 percent of all Egyptians, that’s a substantial bloc, and other Islamist groups swell the total numbers of Egyptians who can be considered more or less “Islamist.” They can’t all be jailed, and a policy of pure repression will turn Egypt into a very nasty police state — and an unstable one at that. The army has yet to answer this question about the role of Islamist groups. Perhaps it will end up allowing them to engage in politics as long as they do so without the secrecy and conspiratorial approach that characterized the MB, and do so as nationalist groups rather than as part of a pan-Arab organization like the MB. Perhaps they will be allowed to act politically once their leaders guarantee that they will not challenge the army’s extraordinary prerogatives as a state within a state (with control over a huge portion of the Egyptian economy).

But if the army is abandoning the part of Mubarak’s legacy that dealt gently with the MB, it is adhering to the other part of it: viewing moderate, secular, democratic, liberal Egyptians as the enemy. The generals are today no fonder of NGOs, human-rights activists, a free press, or an independent judiciary than Hosni Mubarak ever was. From their point of view this seems logical: Such people want a real democracy and are a danger to the Army’s narrow interests.

Logical, and tragic. For a brief period last summer those groups were united in support of the army — and of its ouster of Morsi and the MB, whom they viewed as a real and present danger to any chance for democracy in Egypt. That army-liberal alliance gave some hope of producing a stable, orderly, steadily democratizing Egypt. That’s being thrown away by the army if it treats its recent allies the way it is treating the MB: as dangerous subversives who need to sit down and shut up. That’s the road to creating, some day, a liberal/Islamist alignment against a military dictatorship — precisely the alignment that brought Mubarak down and paved the way for Islamists to grab power. Egypt may go through several such cycles, and the kind of stability it seemed to have under Mubarak is an unlikely bet today. The only thing we can be sure of is that, whatever the key trends, New York Times headlines are the wrong place to look for explanations and understanding.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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