If there were lingering doubts that the military pounced on the June 30 protests to re-establish its political supremacy, Gen. El-Sisi’s Sunday address removed a lot of them. Using convoluted language and tortured logic, the speech’s organizing premise is that the “people summoned the armed forces for the mission of balancing the tipped scale and restoring diverted goals.”
“The people” are mentioned 28 times, but their sovereignty is not once affirmed. What’s emphasized is that the armed forces are the unmoved mover, guarding the country’s politics, not just its borders.
In tandem with the speech, the armed forces released a 30-minute video presenting their narrative of the Morsi presidency and the July 3 coup. After introductory scenes glorifying military exercises, the narrator launches into a story of an irresponsible, inept president who picked fights with every significant institution and repeatedly ignored the sage advice of the generals, threatening a slide to “civil war.”
Set to ominous music, scenes of collapsing buildings, wrecked trains, long petrol queues, and parched fields are strung together as evidence of mounting social crisis. A scene of a voter queue from the December referendum on the “non-consensual” constitution shows a close-up of “No” spraypainted on a wall, though the referendum was approved by 63% of the 33% of voters who turned out.
Gen. El-Sisi is shown addressing a worshipful gathering of actors and performers, arrayed like schoolchildren and holding a large Egyptian flag. They cheer him wildly as he proclaims, “And Egypt will remain Egypt.” The dramatic denouement of the video is General Sisi’s July 3 coup announcement, described by the narrator as “a historic moment the likes of which rarely occur in our time.” The video ends with party music set to scenes of the pyramids and other Pharaonic antiquities.
The speech is far more important than the constitutional declaration emitted by the figurehead interim president last week. It doesn’t only justify the coup, it sets the conceptual framework of the new political order, with the military as its lynchpin.
Throughout the speech, the armed forces are presented as an Olympian figure above the fray, watching worriedly as a pathetic presidency fumbles and missteps, ignoring time and again the military’s “reservations about many policies and actions.” The Muslim Brothers are referred to as “a political faction” that placed their representative in the presidency via elections “that the armed forces sincerely accepted as the will of the people.” But alas, the speech laments, the presidency presided over societal decline and disorder, as well as a regress “in the intellectual, cultural, and artistic” domains that have always made Egypt a model in the region.
In this telling of a failed civilian leadership leading the country headlong into ruin, the military emerges as the corrector and savior. Here is where the speech’s language becomes both mystifying and mystical. The military doesn’t intervene. It “affirms the legitimacy of the people and assists it in regaining its right to choose and act.” And lest anyone use clear language to point out that this is military tutelage, plain and simple, the speech preempts that by asserting that the military is not entering “the political arena” but rather “the national arena.”
Tortured logic and perplexing rhetoric aside, the speech’s points are clear. The presidency is subordinate to the military. The military has a special communion with the will of the people. Whenever it is summoned by the will of the people, the military acts.
The crucial sleight of hand in the speech, the core deception, is substituting the meaningless phrase “legitimacy of the people” for the meaningful doctrine of “sovereignty of the people.” Not once is sovereignty of the people even hinted at in a document that mentions “the people” in every other sentence. The praxis and the promise of the Egyptian revolution, that the citizenry constitutes its political order, is here terminated by a group of generals backed by a world power and aided by its regional clients.
It’s not the first time they’ve done this. Last year, SCAF issued a ‘constitutional decree’ minutes after polls closed in the presidential election, downgrading the presidency and reserving all its powers for SCAF. The next day, three SCAF generals held a press conference to justify their decree, and Gen. Mamdouh Shahin openly said that the armed forces are the constituent power, that is, the foundational entity that has the right to construct a political order.
The main take-away from Sisi’s address is that steering the country is not a matter to be left to regular mortals and their representatives. The state must be in the hands of permanent guardians. It can’t be shared with emergent forces, who will inevitably run the country into the ground.
The speech is the intellectual gloss on the July 3 coup. Its point is that Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people. Too many regional and world powers are vested in the direction this country takes and how it gets there. Its population will be corralled to the side and left to practice their charming folkloric political rituals, with parliamentary elections and even presidential elections and what have you. An arena of electoral democracy will be constructed, but many matters of grave national import will be outside its purview. And anyway, its outcomes can always be reversed.
What about protests in Tahrir, you ask? Certainly, the generals will generously provide the paraphernalia of protest and drop flags on the cheering throngs (while dropping leaflets on those other people), then beam with paternal pride about how their cute people “impress the world.”
Keeping the public in a condition of permanent political infantilism; walling off the state from democratic control; and above all, terminating the necessary political struggles that societies must engage in to build their institutions and control their destinies. This is the military’s roadmap.