Why are Egyptian Liberals Celebrating a Massacre?
In a new episode of Reality Asserts Itself, Paul Jay and Max Blumenthal discuss how the Egyptian military has manipulated the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood to reestablish a dictatorship by the generals.
—Transcript of interview, August 22, 2013
Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, and welcome to another segment of Reality Asserts Itself.
Normally with a guest, I start with a bit of their back-story, more about why they think what they think, and then we get into what they think. But we’re going to change things up a little bit because of what’s happening in Egypt. At least 1,000 people are dead by the time you’re watching this, and we need to talk about this today. And then with my guest we will then get into his back-story and some of the other areas he works in.
But now joining us in the studio in Baltimore is Max Blumenthal. He’s an award-winning journalist and best-selling author of the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. His second book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, will be published in October by Nation Books. He was in the Middle East over the winter, spent a couple of months in Egypt, and now joins us here to talk about recent events.
Thanks for joining us, Max.
Max Blumenthal, author and journalist: Great to be here with you.
Paul Jay: So you were there in November when a lot of what led up to this happened. I guess one of the things that strikes me is the reaction of many people in the square, many both activists and liberals—I mean by Tahrir Square in Egypt—some of whom are essentially celebrating a massacre. How do you understand this?
Max Blumenthal: I started to understand this just by kind of immersing myself in the political world of Cairo and following the protest that began in November and, you know, really intensified in December 2012 when President Mohamed Morsi introduced or attempted to introduce constitutional reforms and reforms to the courts.
And, you know, I’m not an Egypt expert, but it was very difficult for me to understand the level of outrage that people felt, especially in the revolutionary camp, about these reforms and what specifically they were so upset about—about the Constitution. Now, I know there were some, you know, articles that were very divisive, but what I witnessed was protesters basically surrounding the presidential palace, covering it with graffiti, pelting Mohamed Morsi’s motorcade with rocks as he fled the palace. Imagine this scene taking place in the U.S. outside the White House. The state had basically disappeared. So, like, when I came into the country, just I really saw no sign of the police, and people were getting out directing traffic. The Republican Guard was not present, which was supposed to guard the presidential palace. And then the revolutionary camp, or the so-called revolutionary camp, basically pitched—a lot of the revolutionary youth pitched tents outside the presidential palace and staged a sit-in. The Brotherhood called in its troops, who are basically guys from the provinces. They brought them in buses. I came up that night, saw buses parked all around this area in Heliopolis, which is sort of a wealthy suburb of Cairo, and they began attacking the people who had pitched tents outside the presidential palace who had driven the president out. Basically this was an attempt to defend the palace where the state refused to do so.
Paul Jay: I mean, I think that’s important point. It wasn’t the state had disappeared. The army had decided not to do anything about all this.
Max Blumenthal: Yeah, the police and the army had decided to do nothing, from my vantage point. Now, the army would come back in in some of the Suez cities later and enact emergency law. But what I saw in Cairo was that the state had deliberately disappeared, leaving the Brotherhood to fend for itself at this point. This led to a massive street fight that unfolded in front of me, something like I’ve never seen before. And, you know, I’ve been in, you know, conflict-zones in Palestine, in Israel-Palestine, so I’m familiar with it. But just seeing people face off in kind of like a very violent incarnation of West Side Story with, you know, no uniformed security forces, just, you know, the Sharks and the Jets, the Brotherhood supporters and the opposition camp, just 1,000 on each side, squaring off with rocks and Molotov cocktails, with birdshot shotguns, setting up barriers in the street, just attacking each other. It was a ferocious fight. And I think that’s what’s really animating what’s happening now. What happened was the Brotherhood, I think, ultimately wound up overwhelming the opposition protesters and took maybe 100 of them hostage, basically, held them in a nearby mosque. Some were beaten. And this just led to intensifying, incrementally intensifying levels of animosity, where the two sides became irreconcilable.
Now, behind the scenes you had this group, the National Salvation Front. And I went to a press conference and I—you know, ElBaradei was there, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has now just resigned as Vice President after the third massacre. During the first two massacres he could only muster a few hand-wringing tweets. And their position—this was the coalition of all the opposition groups against the Brotherhood. They still had no popularity. None of these figures could win an election on their own. I mean, ElBaradei, I doubt he could get, you know, double digits in an election. And so they’re pooling together and basically boycotting what was to be a referendum on the Constitution, because they knew that they couldn’t win the vote. And then at the last second they decided to start campaigning and participating. But their position was to boycott and reject everything and refuse all cooperation.
Paul Jay: But the army helped orchestrate this situation, in the sense that they didn’t give the non-Muslim Brotherhood opposition time to prepare for the election, so the only really organized force was the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why I think the opposition forces, revolutionary forces always felt it was an illegitimate election. But the army seems to have been, I think, very, very clever, if you want, from their point of view of setting up this situation with the Muslim Brotherhood and then giving them enough rope to hang themselves.
Max Blumenthal: Okay. So that’s the key point here. As—okay, the Brotherhood, they’re kind of a counterrevolutionary element. They’re not an element that I would consider to be a revolutionary force, but they were the only civilian element capable of really challenging the power of the Egyptian army, which really controls one third of the state, which is the deep state. So they were an important element.
Paul Jay: That it’s important that the Muslim Brotherhood did not want to challenge the economic power of the elites.
Max Blumenthal: And they compromised with the army or caved to the army. There was basically what they call the officers coup, the junior officers coup, where they wanted to get rid of Tantawi, who represented the old guard in this. And so Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi negotiated with Morsi, and the officers got to keep their pensions and all their benefits and all the companies they owned, and Morsi basically protected them. Meanwhile, behind the scenes you had the political face of—or what is now the political face of the military, the liberals and the secular opposition in the National Salvation Front, boycotting and rejecting everything, while you have people in the street protesting constantly. And I began to see, just through conversations with people involved in the protest, including members of the Ultras, who are in Egyptian, basically, football fanatics. You could call them hooligans. And they were burning down—.
Paul Jay: But they were very politicized.
Max Blumenthal: Very politicized. They were burning down Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country and really—.
Paul Jay: Well, they felt that the revolution had been hijacked, and they had this—what appeared to be an alliance between Muslim Brotherhood and the army and hijacking the fruits of the revolution, ’cause the demands of the revolution wasn’t just down with the Mubarak; it was social/economic justice. And they saw, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood as essentially carrying on neoliberal policies, making deals with the IMF and so on.
Max Blumenthal: Through conversations with people, including, you know, people involved in the Ultras who said they were involved in the burning of Muslim Brotherhood offices, I began to see that a plot was brewing to bring the military back into power, to force the military to oust the Muslim Brotherhood, in hopes that, you know, this camp would come into power and they could, you know, usher in the second revolution, which is an absolutely ridiculous and delusional fantasy that’s led us to where we are today, which is blood running through the streets of Cairo. And on June 30, the plot came to fruition with this sort of youth group, Tamarod, coming almost out of nowhere. I mean, it grew out of another youth group called Kefaya. But it was basically funded by the richest man in Egypt, Naguib Sawiris, you know, petitioning for the ouster of Morsi, and manufacturing numbers of signatures, and then giving press conferences saying that they had gathered over 20 million signatures, which is, you know, almost a massive mandate for Morsi to go, and then holding this series of protests from June 30 to July 3, which led to Sisi, General Sisi, the head of SCAF, the Egyptian Armed Forces, giving a 48-hour ultimatum to Mohamed Morsi to either resolve this situation, which Sisi was sort of puppeteering, or to leave. So it ultimately led to the military coming into power. And I’d watched as many members of people who I—many people who I thought were members of a revolutionary camp celebrated what was clearly a military coup. And as we know through history, a military coup leads to disappearances and bloodshed and crushes democracy. So why were these people celebrating this? And did they really want a revolution? Or did they just want power for themselves? And that’s what I started to see. I started to reflect on these protests and wonder, why are they protesting, do they have a legitimate grievance with Morsi, who is the elected president of Egypt. Yes, they did. But ultimately there were forces behind these protests and forces behind the National Salvation Front, which simply wanted power. And now we see in this new administration one-third of its cabinet members, are former members of the Mubarak regime, and the coalition’s actually falling away, and what’s going to be left in the end is a military autocracy with no politics, no room for politics whatsoever.
Paul Jay: I mean, this has to be part of the calculations. If you slaughter a thousand people with the Muslim Brotherhood, you’ve got to know they’re not just going to go away quietly, and you have to know at some level, even though the Brotherhood leadership is preaching keep it peaceful, there are going to be elements within the Brotherhood and other Islamists who are not going to keep it peaceful, which gives the army the rationale for “you need us as your power,” and maybe we don’t need elections until Egypt is calm again, and that could be a decade.
Max Blumenthal: And whether or not the Brotherhood does stage terror attacks or commit acts of violence, they’ve been demonized in the most absurd and conspiratorial manner since June 30. The latest today I saw was—I saw in Egyptian media was that—you know, a conspiracy theory being spun out that the Brotherhood would call in Sheikh Nasrallah in Hezbollah to help restore Morsi to power, which is just patently absurd. We’ve seen the demonization of Palestinians from the current—from the new coup regime and in state media, you know, claims that Hamas, the government of Gaza, is sending its members into the Sinai to create havoc, that Palestinians are involved in the pro-Morsi protests and are attacking people, which is false. Palestinians have been deported en masse from Egypt or refused entry, the same with citizens of Yemen, and Syrians are being actively demonized and attacked in Egypt. And it’s all an attempt to portray the Brotherhood in what is really Islamophobic terms as a terrorist group. Now, why would they use this kind of rhetoric? Obviously when you’re calling all these people terrorists who are protesting, I think legitimately, because they were forced out of power by a military after being elected, is to first of all dehumanize them, to create political space for this kind of bloody crackdown. But second, the ultimate goal is to ban them altogether and treat them in a manner even more harshly than Mubarak did.
Paul Jay: So you get back to it’s the military and the military leadership and dictatorship that has been pulling most of these strings.
Max Blumenthal: Yeah.
Paul Jay: There’s a lack of leadership in the revolutionary youth, where they find it hard to know, for example, you know, the army and the people are one, and then a few months later it’s down with the military dictatorship, and a few months later it’s back to the army and the people are one. There’s this lack of leadership to have a really independent policy, and, you know, most importantly, a lack of being able to contend in the elections in an independent, organized way. And so—but at the bottom line here is that it’s the army willing to kill, whether it’s revolutionaries or whether it’s kill supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the military is willing to go to any means to maintain its economic and political power.
Max Blumenthal: Yeah, and it shows you where the real power is in Egypt and how craven a lot of people are and callow. ElBaradei is the prime example. But, I mean, you look at, you know, what happened after Mubarak fell or after SCAF started to hold elections. I mean, at no point did I really see the April 6 movement, which is the real face of the revolutionary youth, make any serious demands or offer a long-term strategy, because what they had accomplished was so incredible and so spontaneous, I don’t think they actually had any long-term plan or any vision for the future. And at this point, April 6 is now taking sort of a principled stand against the Muslim Brotherhood and against the military and refusing to cooperate with the military. But, you know, it’s been the revolutionary—the true revolutionary forces have been so weekend, I don’t think there’s any space for them at this moment. And, you know, from this point on, we can just expect sustained bloodshed and protracted conflict.
Paul Jay: So let’s talk about U.S. policy here, ’cause the American policy’s right in the middle of all of this. It’s—what is it? One-and-a-half billion dollars a year, something like that, U.S. dollars, goes to the Egyptian military and has for decades. But in the context of U.S. policy, U.S. has two allies that both kind of contend with each other who’s going to manage regional interests and in collaboration with United States/American interest, and that’s Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And clearly Qatar was backing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and promised billions of dollars to Egypt. And now that’s kind of all blown up in their face. And that seemed to have been partly the Obama strategy. Obama was ready to work with Morsi. They offered him debt relief. I think they were going to cut half—take half the debt of Egypt to the United States and give it back to Egypt in cash. They supported an IMF restructuring of loans. And, of course, American CENTCOM is in Qatar. And Al Jazeera was right in the middle of all of this. Now that’s exploded. And now apparently it’s the Saudis now that are promising billions of dollars and the Saudis that have the close relations with the American military—I’m sorry, with the Egyptian military—of course and the American military. But it’s a very complicated situation. So now you have Obama saying, okay, we’re not going to do these joint military exercises, but we will not cut aid to the Egyptian military. But now you have some voices on the American right, including McCain and Elliott Abrams and others, who are actually calling for a cessation of aid to the Egyptian military, and these are also guys who have had pretty good connections with the Saudis. So can you make any sense of this?
Max Blumenthal: Yeah. I mean, we didn’t mention Israel yet, and that’s the reason why Obama has to—Barack Obama and his administration have to basically violate U.S. law or dance around U.S. law with this rhetorical dance of not calling a military coup a coup.
Paul Jay: Yeah, we should just quickly for people that didn’t follow this—the White House legal advisers told the White House that this law, which says if there’s a coup, you can’t fund the military conducting the coup, but there’s nothing in the law that says the White House actually has to determine if it’s a coup or not a coup. So they decided not to determine it. So it’s kind of a ridiculous technicality.
Max Blumenthal: So the Camp David Accords basically compel the Egyptian army to control the Sinai Peninsula on behalf of Israel. It also requires Egypt to engage in all kinds of onerous economic forms of economic cooperation with Israel, in which they have to export goods made with Israeli products, with Israeli textiles, with Israeli fabric, for example. And and they have to provide gas to Israel at reduced rates. This is a real source of resentment in Egypt, and it’s something that Israel’s very comfortable with that they actually consider one of the key components of their deterrence strategy. So Netanyahu’s been on the phone with Obama and members of his administration, demanding that he not withhold aid or withdraw aid to Egypt, even though it doesn’t really matter at this point strategically for Egypt, because they have such large commitments from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as you mentioned. And a columnist for The Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg, put it in really crude terms yesterday when he said on Twitter that the U.S. shouldn’t withhold the aid to Egypt because it’s bad for the Jews. I mean, that’s sort of dangerous language.
Paul Jay: But you have McCain and Elliott Abrams calling to cut the aid. Then you have Lindsey Graham saying the biggest fear is a failed Egyptian state opening up terrain for al-Qaeda type forces, and because that becomes a threat to Israel.
Max Blumenthal: Yeah. Talking about the North Sinai.
Paul Jay: I mean, it sounds like—is this posturing? Or is U.S. foreign policy just completely confused here?
Max Blumenthal: There seems—well, I mean, you’re talking about a lot of neocons, and there’s definitely a split in the neocon movement now. But I think it’s a lot of posturing on aid to Egypt, because, you know, with—the loudest voices among the neocons now are kind of the third generation of neocons, and they really want to get away from the second generation and the—well, from the first generation, which backed the authoritarians in Latin America—Jean Kirkpatrick calling openly for the U.S. to back authoritarian leaders, and they want to present themselves as the true guardians of democracy. So that’s—so they made this kind of call for ending aid.
But also part of it is political from John McCain’s standpoint. Obama’s policy on Egypt and on Syria has been incredibly embarrassing. And when a Republican candidate runs for president, gets the nomination, if it’s not Rand Paul, he or she is going to be surrounded with neocon advisers, and they’re going to be attacking whoever the Democrat is who wants to own Obama’s legacy for this policy of failure in Egypt and Syria, where the U.S. could not call a coup a coup and it led to massive amounts of bloodshed. We also have to remember at the beginning of the Syrian revolt, before Assad had started strafing and bombing Syrian cities with MIGs, that Hillary Clinton said, we can’t intervene because this isn’t Libya. He’s not killing his own people yet. You know, this is a really embarrassing statement for her to make. So the Obama administration is vulnerable politically on this. Luckily for the Democrats, most Americans don’t care about foreign policy.
—The Real News Network, August 22, 2013