In its latest crackdown against dissenters, the Egyptian military has targeted the Nobel laureate Mohamed El-Baradei with court charges of “betrayal of trust,” after he resigned from the position of vice president in the aftermath of the army’s violence against Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Though the case was postponed due to a wave of public criticism, it is nevertheless reflective of the true motives of the Egyptian "Deep State." The case against El-Baradei, who is a well-known moderate, is just the latest instance in which the military has acted in accordance with what best preserves its power with little regard to fostering democracy or liberalism. As Western policymakers continue to consider their relationship with the future Egyptian state, this fact should weigh heavily in their deliberations.
When the military stepped in to depose the Morsi government earlier this year, many liberals, democrats, and secularists ardently presented the case that the army had not committed a “coup.” The word coup implied that the army had acted against the interests of the people and this simply was not the case. The army’s actions had saved what chances Egypt had for democratic government and freedom from Islamic extremism — it gave the revolution back to the Egyptian people.
Though this argument was somewhat vindicated by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi’s flagrant abuse of power during his short-lived presidency, it has been challenged by the military’s heavy-handedness. The military has stepped up its violent repression of dissent in an effort to completely suppress Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The frivolous case against El-Baradei should put the final nail in the argument that the Egyptian military is acting in the interests of democracy. It shows that that the military has widened its net to go after anyone that would challenge their authority. One only has to look at El-Baradei’s background to see that he is anything but an extremist. Having graduated from NYU law school, he worked in the International Atomic Energy Agency. For this work he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, he founded the Constitution Party, which was left-leaning in its politics and staunchly secular. However, only with hesitation did he enter into mainstream politics. He acted as the negotiator between the military and Morsi to eventually become the vice president in the transitional government.
In response to the anti-Brotherhood military crackdown in August that killed over 500 people, he released a resignation in which he stated: "I contributed with all my power and continued to call for these principles prior to Jan 25 and thereafter; and I will remain loyal to the homeland, whose security and stability, I believe, can be achieved only through national conciliation and social peace by establishing a civil state, steering away from forcing religion into politics, yet embracing its principles and values in all domains of life."
The military's case against El-Baradei demonstrates that its leadership’s goals are not about preventing Islamic extremism or encouraging a transition to a functional democracy, but rather about maintaining the military's own power and silencing dissent from all quarters.
The argument often made in favor of secular military regimes in the Middle East is that they are a bulwark against Islamic extremism. The argument goes that although in a perfect world democracy and liberalism would flourish, Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be trusted if elected. If given the chance, they will attempt to institutionalize a radical Islamic government. The only way to maintain any stability is through a strong order imposed by the military. Historically, this line of reasoning was presented to and accepted by American presidents when they visited Egypt. It was one of the major reasons that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was able to hold onto power for as long as he did.
But as the Arab Spring has shown the world, it is nearly impossible for governments to suppress the political aspirations of their people. Western policymakers should consider this as they continue to formulate their policy towards Egypt. While backing an anti-democratic military may contribute to short-term stability, it will not be able to hold back the tide of political awakening in Egypt.