“The Jailers Should Be Jailed”: Sharif Abdel Kouddous on the Embrace of Egypt’s Military Post-Morsi

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After a week of relative quiet, new clashes have erupted in Egypt in the ongoing conflict over the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. At least seven people were killed and more than 260 wounded in overnight violence after supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood blocked traffic and marched on a key square. The unrest came just as the Obama administration resumed efforts to engage in Egypt’s political divide. In the first visit by a U.S. official since Morsi’s ouster, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns held talks with military leaders and the interim government. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. “We’re seeing a resurgence of nationalism and national amnesia, almost, that is applauding the army and the security forces to crack down with impunity and to lead the country’s transition,” Sharif says. “We have to remember this is the same army that really mismanaged the first transition, helped lead us to this political crisis in the first place, that is guilty of many crimes itself. The jailers themselves should be jailed.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Egypt, where new clashes have erupted after a week of relative quiet. At least seven people were killed and more than 260 wounded in overnight violence spurred by this month’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. Supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood blocked traffic and marched on a key square, angering local residents. Police fired tear gas and birdshot into the crowds while some protesters threw rocks. It was the worst outbreak of violence since 53 Morsi supporters were killed a week ago.

The new unrest came just as the Obama administration resumed efforts to engage in Egypt’s political divide. In the first visit by a U.S. official since Morsi’s ouster, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns held talks with military leaders and the interim government. Burns told a news conference the U.S. does not want to interfere with Egypt’s political process but hopes all political parties will be included.

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE WILLIAM BURNS: [Only Egyptians can determine] their future. I did not come with American solutions, nor did I come to lecture anyone. We know that Egyptians must forge their own path to democracy. We know that this will not mirror our own, and we will not try to impose our model on Egypt. What the United States will do is stand behind certain basic principles, not any particular personalities or parties. If representatives of some of the largest parties in Egypt are detained or excluded, how are dialogue and participation possible? The government itself has said it wants inclusion of all political streams. We’ve called on the military to avoid any politically motivated arrests, and we have also called upon those who differ with the government to adhere to their absolute obligation to participate peacefully.

AMY GOODMAN: In his remarks, the deputy U.S. secretary of state, William Burns, continued the Obama administration’s refusal to label Morsi’s ouster a coup, thereby protecting the $1.5 billion in U.S. aid.

The Muslim Brotherhood says it’s refusing to meet with Burns, as has the group Tamarod, which helped drive Morsi from power. While the U.S. has claimed neutrality, both sides of Egypt’s political divide have accused the other of collaborating with Washington. The Muslim Brotherhood has maintained a daily vigil calling for Morsi’s release from military custody and reinstatement to office. It’s also rejected a role in the interim Egyptian government, complicating ongoing efforts to form a new Cabinet. In an escalation of the standoff between the two sides, Egypt’s public prosecutor Monday ordered the arrest of seven senior Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist figures on allegations of inciting violence. Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and other top officials were indicted on similar charges last week.

For more, we go to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

Talk about the latest, the violence overnight, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. As you mentioned, there were clashes in downtown Cairo and across the river in Giza that came after the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast during the month of Ramadan. And I think, you know, these clashes—well, they were the first since the violence last week that we saw that left over 50 Morsi supporters dead outside the Republican Guard headquarters.

But they came after what looks like an escalation by the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters to—you know, the protests had largely been at the Rab’a al-Adaweya mosque, which is a neighborhood in a part of Cairo in Nasr City, and they seem to want to make their voices heard and go to different parts of the city. And yesterday they closed down the 6th of October Bridge, which is a main artery through Cairo. They closed down other bridges and main thoroughfares, you know, creating standstill, a traffic standstill. And then police and local residents of neighborhoods got into clashes with the Brotherhood and Morsi supporters, so we saw a lot of tear gas and shotgun—shotguns and things of this nature, and over 400 people were arrested, as well.

So, it seems that the Morsi supporters want to continue to escalate their protests. They’re not getting a lot of coverage on the private TV networks that are more supportive of the military. And I think also that their continued insistence on Morsi being reinstated is not a realistic demand, but it’s one that helps to mobilize their base, to keep their people in the squares, and also, frankly, it avoids the movement asking difficult internal questions about the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood that brought it to this political crisis.

AARON MATÉ: Sharif, when you reported on the ouster of Morsi earlier this month, you said Egypt was back to square one, back to the day of the ouster of Mubarak in February 2011. So can you compare today’s square one back with that period, back with when Mubarak was overthrown?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, yeah, I said that in reference to the very—the procedural democratic transition that we had been going through, so it erased all these elections that we had, the referenda on constitutional amendments and finally the constitution. So, you know, the difference is now, is that we’re going through another army-led transition that is very similar to the last one, and I think it’s making very similar mistakes. It’s a very rushed timetable. The constitutional declaration was issued without any consultation from opposition parties who were pushing for Morsi’s ouster, and they have spoken out about that. And so, there’s no—there isn’t a real process for reconciliation that we can see. There’s a national reconciliation that’s supposed to be starting with the interim president, Adly Mansour, and also with the sheikh of Al-Azhar and so forth, but with this continued violence in the streets, with this continued crackdown on not just Brotherhood members but also other leading Islamist figures, it’s very difficult to see how real reconciliation can happen.

And, finally, we’re seeing also a resurgence of this kind of nationalism and a national amnesia, almost, that is applauding the army and the security forces to crack down with impunity and to lead the country in this transition. And we have to remember that this is the same army that really mismanaged the first transition, helped lead us to this political crisis in the first place, that is guilty of many crimes itself that were documented in a fact-finding commission commissioned by the ousted president. And so, you know, the jailers should themselves be jailed.

And so that’s the situation we’re in, but it’s a very polarizing atmosphere right now, much more polarized than the kind of the pluralistic feeling we had on February 11th, where Islamists and non-Islamists and everyone was kind of together. Now we have this very polarized and vitriolic atmosphere, which is dangerous, and it can usher in a new kind of or a deeper authoritarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: Associated Press reporter Matt Lee challenged State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki to say explicitly that the U.S. urged Egypt to release President Mohamed Morsi. Psaki would not oblige.

MATTHEW LEE: [But you still] are calling for him to be released.

JEN PSAKI: Our position is the same.

MATTHEW LEE: Can you say that, you are still [calling—”We urge the authorities of Egypt to”]—

JEN PSAKI: [I think our position is pretty clear and the same, and from the beginning we’ve expressed concerns] about the—

MATTHEW LEE: Well, the reason—

JEN PSAKI: —politically motivated detentions.

MATTHEW LEE: Including of President Morsi?


MATTHEW LEE: Can you say that?

JEN PSAKI: I think I just said it, Matt.

MATTHEW LEE: No, no, can you say that?

JEN PSAKI: I don’t think we need to play this game.

MATTHEW LEE: Can you use his name, please? Because Deputy Secretary Burns was very careful not to mention his name, and so I would like to know, I mean, can you just say—if your position is the same as last week when you said we think that he should be released, can you say the same thing today?

JEN PSAKI: Do you need—do you just enjoy the sound of my voice?




MATTHEW LEE: I do. This is a serious question. I realize it—

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, she didn’t—she didn’t say it last week. She just nodded and said, “Yes.”

DANA HUGHES: What do you think should happen to—

MATTHEW LEE: You call—do you—

DANA HUGHES: —to the president?

MATTHEW LEE: Can I just finish? Hold on, please. Can you say from the podium—

JEN PSAKI: The question last week was: Do we agree with the call of the Germans? And I said, “Yes.”


JEN PSAKI: Our position is the same.

MATTHEW LEE: Why can you not say—

JEN PSAKI: Matt, I’m not playing this game. Dana?

MATTHEW LEE: It’s not really a game. Can I ask you—

DANA HUGHES: No, no, I mean, it’s just—it’s off of what Matt’s saying—


DANA HUGHES: —which is, like, well, what do you think should happen to the former president of Egypt?

JEN PSAKI: Well, it’s not for us to decide. It’s for the Egyptian people to decide what his role will be moving forward.

MATTHEW LEE: Will you take the question as to why uttering President Morsi, Mohamed Morsi’s name is taboo? I would like to know that answer.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have the back-and-forth at the State Department with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee questioning State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. Sharif, your response?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, the State Department and the Obama administration are jumping through hoops to try and not really stake out any position that looks to be favoring one side or the other. It’s very—you know, if they say the word “coup” or that the military ousted Morsi, that triggers requirements by U.S. law for them to halt the aid, which is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, $1.5 billion, $1.3 billion of which goes directly to the military. So the military is the main benefactor of U.S. aid—and, of course, defense corporations in the United States. But, you know, just a few days after Morsi’s ouster, American officials said that they were going to go ahead with the delivery of four F-16 jets to Egypt as part of a 2010 agreement. And we know that the ties between the military in Egypt and the Pentagon are very close, and they have been for many years.

So, you know, I don’t—I don’t foresee the U.S. cutting off aid anytime soon, but there are a lot of people who are pushing for this, some of them in Congress, including people like John McCain, and calling for a halt to the aid until they can move to—back to civilian government. I think the head of the armed forces here was smart to very quickly, at least procedurally, hand over power to an interim president who was the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and they’re forming a technocratic Cabinet. Of course, I don’t think anyone has any misgivings about who’s actually pulling the strings and who’s actually in power, and that is the military.

AARON MATÉ: Sharif, what about the role of the old regime? We have reports now that basic services that were absent during Morsi are now coming back all of a sudden. Do you think that there was a deliberate effort to destabilize Morsi’s government? And how is that playing out now?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I think there’s no question that there was elements of the former regime that worked from the very beginning to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood, to undermine the Morsi presidency. I mean, this is politics. I mean, as soon as, you know, Obama is elected, you see the Republicans working to undermine his presidency. But there’s been deeper claims of a conspiracy, that the fuel shortages that we saw, especially very long lines in the lead-up to the June 30th protests, being—were somehow—were somehow manipulated by the old state bureaucracy. I don’t think we have any smoking gun evidence of that yet. It may very well be the case, given the timing of it. It may also be a simple case of hoarding of gas, and we’ve seen several instances of these fuel crises happen.

But to the broader point, I think that, yes, of course—and we’re seeing this now—the elements of the former regime, the state security apparatus, the military, looking to ride a very legitimate wave of popular anger and popular unrest at Morsi and looking to reassert itself in the post-Morsi period. And we’re seeing that happen very—we’re seeing that happen right now with this crackdown on the Islamists, with, you know, this intense propaganda campaign not to criticize the military. Anyone who speaks out is vilified as being supporting the Islamists and against the revolution, and so forth.

So, you know, it’s a very complicated situation, and I think there’s a very fine line of people—and I think it may be growing a bit—people who support June 30th and the popular uprising against Morsi, but who are against July 3rd, the military coup that overthrew him, and would have liked to have seen the popular uprising continue, not be halted by this coup and the army instilling this roadmap. But they are, I think, in the minority right now. But if history is any judge, recent history in Egypt, then people—as we’ve seen so many times, if this authoritarianism continues, I think we’re going to see another mass mobilization that will, you know, look to overcome that authoritarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, one of the people The New York Times has focused on reportedly playing a key role in the protests, Naguib Sawiris, the billionaire and opponent of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who said he backed the opposition group Tamarod by donating offices, boosting media coverage, even commissioning a music video, without the group realizing he was involved. They talk about him as being involved with those energy shortages, and the minute Morsi was out, suddenly the gas was flowing. What is the significance of him? Where does he fit into the political landscape and this connection to Tamarod?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, in some ways, I think that this is being overplayed, but Naguib Sawiris is Egypt’s richest businessman. He’s a telecommunications tycoon who had comfortable relations with the Mubarak regime and, you know, made much of his fortune during that time. However—and he’s been—he founded a political party called the Free Egyptians Party. He ran and opposed Morsi and the Brotherhood, and was very outspoken against them. So he’s a member of, you know, the formal political opposition. The fact that he helped fund Tamarod, apparently without Tamarod’s knowledge, I don’t find that surprising. This was a political campaign, a petition against the president.

So, you know, again, I think this speaks to the larger point. Was there figures who looked to benefit from Morsi’s ouster that were either tied to the former regime or would benefit economically or politically? Of course there was. And, you know, I think we saw them manipulate and aggravate existing tensions against the Morsi government to help topple him. However, that doesn’t, I think, take away from the—there was over 9,000 protests and strikes against Morsi in his year in office, so there was a legitimate popular uprising that was happening, as well. And like we’ve seen so many times in the past, the state elites are riding this wave of anger to jockey themselves into power and keep, essentially, the structure of the authoritarian state intact. So this has happened time and again. And, unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of people have learned from the experience of the past, and the military has come back to wide applause from many sectors of Egyptian society. So, we’ll have to see what happens, going forward.

AARON MATÉ: Sharif, the Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not meet U.S. officials until its demands are met. This is a senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Farid Ismail.

FARID ISMAIL: [translated] America are the ones who carried out the military coup. It is not that they recognized it. No, they are the ones who carried out the coup. We are aware, and we have specific information about the communication that preceded the coup which proves that America made the coup and General al-Sisi executed it. So, for that reason, they come to visit them, and they come to recognize them. They are the ones who carried out the coup.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Farid Ismail, a senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sharif, what is the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy here? They’ve been holding these daily rallies, thousands of supporters, but facing repression.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, it’s difficult to say. I mean, they claim—in the media, senior leaders say that they’re not in negotiations; however, there have been some reports that some of their members, their senior members, are negotiating with the military, negotiating with the interim government. I think that that’s probably likely the case. They’re a very pragmatic movement. I think there’s—you know, there’s two things here. One is to keep this mobilization, this mass mobilization they have, going and appeal to their base. They’re insisting on the illegitimacy of the new government. They’re insisting on the reinstatement of Morsi, which is a very unlikely prospect. And so that helps rally their base and also helps—as I said before, helps them to avoid very difficult questions and kind of a stock taking of their political decisions over the last year that helped lead them to this crisis. So, that’s on the one front.

They have, as you said, decided to not meet with U.S. officials. But as you mentioned in the beginning of the segment, both sides blame the United States for what they see as backing the other side. So, the Morsi government, which—and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot see a scenario in which the military stepped in without getting a green light from its U.S. paymasters; and on the other side, Tamarod and other groups are very critical of what they see as a very warm embrace of the Obama administration of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi very quickly. So we have this very palpable anger against the United States that I haven’t seen at this level before, since I’ve been here.

And as far as the Muslim Brotherhood goes forward, I think, as an organization, this is a very, very pivotal moment for them. And I think what they’re fighting for now is to not be—not to go back to the repression that they were under for 30 years—well, really for 60 years—under these autocratic regimes, to be able to participate in the political process. And I think if the army continues to try and crack down on them and to finish them off, that will only really hardline—serve to make them more hardline and would marginalize reformist voices within the movement. And we’ve seen that happen so many times. And this latest conservative wing has taken over the leadership in the last three years I think is a result of so much repression under Mubarak, and if this repression continues under this military regime, then I think we’re going to see them—we won’t see much reform, or reform will be held off from within the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Sharif, the front-page top story of The New York Times, “Egypt’s Liberals Embracing Army in Turnaround,” and it talks about “a hypernationalist euphoria unleashed in Egypt by the toppling of [Mr.] Morsi.” In the pro-democracy groups, the youth groups, where are they now? Are they in the streets, or are they working with the government? Where are they?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this is—as I said, it’s a very divisive atmosphere, and we’re seeing, you know, some people who were very, very critical of the military when it had the direct administration of the country, and who protested on the streets, some of the whom were jailed, now warmly embrace the military and be very critical of anyone who speaks out. And people who do speak out are vilified, are attacked very viciously. So, it is a very worrying sign, and it’s this kind of atmosphere that allows institutions like the army and the state security apparatus to really flex their muscles and come in strong and say they’re providing security—

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, very quickly, not to interrupt, but we just wanted to play this one clip of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns saying recent developments in Egypt don’t undermine the democratic transition underway in the country.

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE WILLIAM BURNS: We support the adoption of reforms that can lead to an early IMF agreement, while sustaining funding for social safety net programs. We believe these measures are for a path to address the entirely justifiable aspirations of the revolution and realize the economic potential of Egypt and its people.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds for your response, where Egypt is going.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, in terms of the economy, we saw this huge injection of cash and loans and grants and gas come from Saudi Arabia, United Emirates and Kuwait, which totaled $12 billion. And the new member of the minister of planning has said that they’re not going to pursue the IMF loan, which requires a very difficult restructuring of subsidies, because that this money will kind of carry them through before they have a popularly elected government. So, we’ll have to see. As you know, Egypt changes from day to day, week to week, so it’s very unpredictable.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, also Nation fellow. And we’ll link to his articles at democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Bradley Manning trial. Stay with us.

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