The New Egypt: Where Government Critics are all Terrorists and Thugs

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It has been almost four months since the Egyptian military reinserted itself into the top political position in Egypt, taking the helm of the country from President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a violent takeover that culminated in the deaths of nearly a thousand Pro-Morsi demonstrators. The military has taken steps in the months since to ensure that its rule is unquestionable, jailing dissidents, particularly high ranking Muslim Brotherhood members, and equating those who do disapprove of the steps taken by the new ruling regime as “terrorists” or “thugs” who, by criticizing the nation’s rulers, “harm national interests.”

With their move to overthrow the president buoyed by a wave of popular support, the Egyptian military have used its newfound popularity as a justification for its crackdown on opposition and dissent. Because of many Egyptians claimed the July overthrow of the Morsi Administration as a popular revolution against an unpopular president, those who are against the current political situation are accused of being opposed to “the will of the Egyptian people.” The support of various political entities for the overthrow of President Morsi—including religious and secular groups such as Al-Azhar, the Coptic Church, and the A Tamarod anti-Morsi movement—has given the military a sense of legitimacy to rule.

When the military finds its legitimacy questioned, it defaults to its historic excuses to stifle those asking the hard questions.  In a recent example of this, popular satirist and television host Bassem Youssef was referred to the top prosecutor under the pretense that he has “harmed national interests” with his television program, “al-Bernameg.” Mr. Youssef has lambasted both the Morsi administration and the military government through his satirical portrayals, inspired by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. His show has earned him ire from all parties, and was previously accused my Morsi supporters of “insulting the presidency” for his portrayal of the former President. Mohamed el-Baradei, a prominent liberal critic of both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes was also pursued legally after the military crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters for “breach of national trust.” A Cairo court recently dismissed the case, but not before the former IAEA chief garnered the anger of many in the anti-Morsi protesters for questioning the military crackdown.

What exactly those national interests are that the military claims to be defending by targeting critics is vague. The charge allows the ruling regime to arbitrarily detain those who criticize it, preserving its legitimacy while delegitimizing protests against its actions as being the work of terrorists, thugs, or foreign actors. The outcome of this method of control is the inevitable invulnerability of the ruling actors to criticism, which can exacerbate those in power’s ability to commit acts of violence, cronyism, and corruption. Recently, a general who had been publicly had been ridiculed for his role in corruption under President Mubarak was reinstated by Defense Minister Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi to the position of intelligence chief. General Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy, who was fired by President Morsi and faced charges of corruption less than a year ago, has had the charges against him quietly dropped and his position elevated. General el-Tohamy appears to have been rewarded for his vocal denunciation of the Muslim Brotherhood and strong support for the violent crackdown against Morsi supporters.

The military will continue to pursue its own interests from its seat of power, and will claim that it is working “in national interest.” This claim has allowed it to avoid accountability for its own actions. Members of the military now have the ability to engage in actions the benefit them personally at the expense of the Egyptian people at large, all the while claiming their actions are “in the national interest.” It remains to be seen how far down this road back to the pre-Arab Spring Egypt will go, but currently the police and military act with almost complete impunity and a lack of accountability. The Egyptian military’s new freedom to act without restraint is likely harm it in the long term, particularly should it decide not to return the country to a democratic, elected government. That popular legitimacy it is currently enjoying will fade, as the military proved during its interim rule between the fall of Mubarak and the election of Morsi. As long as it wields the excuse of popular legitimacy, the military will continue to crackdown on its critics.

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