What Happened to Egypt's Liberals After the Coup?

Khaled Dawoud worked hard to remove Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, from office.

As the spokesperson for the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of non-Islamist parties and groups formed last November, he was a well-recognized voice of opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the weeks leading up to June 30, Dawoud traveled across the country, helping to drum up support and organize logistics for the massive anti-Morsi protests.

After the army ousted Morsi on July 3, Dawoud was a regular guest on local and international news channels, vociferously defending the overthrow and arguing that the president's removal did not constitute a military coup.

"I do not have any regrets over Morsi's removal because the Muslim Brotherhood were posing a major threat to the future of this country," he says. "They betrayed every single principle of the Egyptian revolution."

Yet now, Dawoud finds himself at odds with the group he once represented, and he is vilified by many of his former political allies.

The turning point came on August 14, when the military and security forces brutally cleared the two mass sit-ins in Cairo that formed the epicenter of support for the ousted president. Hundreds of people were killed in what Human Rights Watch describes as "the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history."

The National Salvation Front leadership, which includes former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, put out a statement applauding the raids. Two days later, Dawoud — who describes himself as a "leftist, not a liberal" — resigned as the group's spokesperson.

"We wanted a political deal, we wanted Morsi removed, but we didn't want to suppress [the Muslim Brotherhood] or kill them or consider them an outlawed organization," he says, sitting on a heavily cracked black leather couch in the offices of Al-Ahram Weekly, the state-owned English-language publication where he has worked as a journalist since 1996. After resigning, he says, "even some close friends called me a Brotherhood sympathizer, a secret cell, a traitor and a US agent."

Dawoud's story is emblematic of Egypt's convoluted political landscape, whose fault lines have shifted and rearranged in the aftermath of Morsi's overthrow and the subsequent brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood and its allies.

Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition — the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as "liberals," despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others — like Dawoud — stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a "war on terror."

The military — which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check — successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.

The opposition to Morsi began to coalesce in early May, when a group of young organizers launched Tamarod (Arabic for "rebel"), a grassroots initiative founded on a simple yet powerful idea: a petition declaring a vote of no confidence in the president and a call for early presidential elections. The campaign quickly gained momentum through a decentralized network of volunteers, spread throughout Egypt's provinces, who gathered signatures on the streets, on university campuses and even in government offices. Many influential activists and protest groups backed Tamarod, including the April 6 Youth Movement and the Kefaya Movement, both of which had been instrumental in the January 25, 2011, uprising against Mubarak.

In late May, as the campaign was gaining significant momentum, three of the group's founders gathered in the cramped headquarters of the Revolutionary Socialists in Giza to discuss the campaign and its goals. The Revolutionary Socialists, an established socialist group with a Trotskyist orientation, had announced its backing of the Tamarod campaign. Some thirty people turned up for the talk, gathering in a sparse, neon-lit room. On a side table, stacks of paperback books on anarchism, socialism and Leninism were available for purchase.

In his opening remarks, one of Tamarod's founders, Mahmoud Badr (previously a coordinator in Kefaya), chose to focus on the role of the army. He recounted various incidents of popular mobilization and resistance against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces — which directly ruled the country following Mubarak's ouster in 2011 — in which the Brotherhood did not take part. He concluded by ruling out a military role in political life. "We insist that the army cannot be involved in politics," he said emphatically.

Five weeks later, on July 3, with army tanks on the streets and helicopters roaming the skies, Badr would be sitting near the head of the armed forces, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as Sisi announced the end of Morsi's presidency. Since then, the Tamarod campaign has walked in lockstep with the military, extolling its role in toppling Morsi, backing the army-led transition and cheerleading the killing of hundreds of Brotherhood members by security forces and the jailing of thousands of their rank and file. Badr and another Tamarod founder, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, have since been appointed to the fifty-member committee redrafting Egypt's Constitution.

"The story of Tamarod is the story of the co-optation of a popular movement," says Mona El-Ghobashy, an Egyptian professor of political science at Barnard College. "It was this grassroots, fragmented, atomized initiative by definition, and the military saw an excellent opportunity and piggybacked on it," El-Ghobashy says. "Tamarod's leaders' comments ever since the late days of June and certainly after June 30 have been more royal than the king."

Tags: egypt, morsi, mubarak, muslim brotherhood

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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