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March 1, 2014

Egypt's military government increases
repression amid growing paranoia

By Stephen Zunes

Since the military coup in Egypt against the unpopular but democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi last July, more than 1,000 regime opponents have been killed, thousands more have been hauled before military courts on political charges, and a repressive anti-protest law has been enacted severely limiting the right of peaceful assembly. The targets of this crackdown have not just been supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government, but liberal secular activists whose calls for democracy and social justice have put them at odds with both the Islamists and the military leadership. A growing number of prominent trade unionists, journalists and human rights activists are being imprisoned.

A new constitution written by military appointees came before voters in mid-January in which the junta claimed a 98 percent vote in favor. However, those campaigning in support of a No vote were subjected to beatings and arrest and only favorable reports on the constitution were allowed in the Egyptian media. The turnout was only 37 percent.

The paranoia of the U.S.-backed regime is remarkable. Authorities have detained a stork which had been fitted by an ornithologist with a tracking device suspecting it was being used for spying and have investigated a hand puppet from a popular children's television show on suspicions that it was sending coded messages for oppositionists.

In a similar vein, interviews and articles have recently appeared in pro-government papers and television stations alleging various plots involving U.S.-based human rights groups, American scholars and educational foundations researching strategic nonviolent action, and Serbian veterans of the 2000 pro-democracy struggle against Milosevic, among others, conspiring with the U.S. government and Egyptian pro-democracy activists to weaken the nation in the service of Western imperialism.

The regime has ironically accused the left-leaning secular leaders of the popular uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship three years ago of working with the United States to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, even though many of these activists were among the leaders of the nonviolent uprising early last summer against the increasingly autocratic government led by the Muslim Brotherhood which prompted the coup. As a result, efforts to tie them to Islamists are as bizarre as efforts to tie them to the United States.

During the Cold War, right-wing governments would routinely accuse progressive democratic oppositionists of being willing tools of Moscow with the aim of establishing Soviet-style Communism in their country and throughout the world. With no Soviet Union and very little communism to worry about, today's autocrats are forced to put the blame on the world's only remaining superpower, even when they themselves depend on American largesse.

There are certainly legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies in the Middle East. In Egypt, however, the Obama administration is simultaneously being falsely accused by the military regime and its supporters for bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power and by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters of being behind the military coup that ousted them.

The Egyptian military is trying to have it both ways: appealing to the foreign policy establishment in Washington by suppressing both the Islamists and the Left, while playing the pseudo-nationalist card for the Egyptian masses.

Ironically, just as the regime's crackdown was escalating in January, Congress approved an additional $1.5 billion in military assistance to Egypt. Though U.S. law prohibits aid to any regime which overthrows a democratically-elected government through a military coup, Congressional leaders of both parties inserted language stating that the aid could flow "notwithstanding any provision of law restricting assistance for Egypt."

The Egyptian military clearly has the upper hand at this time, but their hold on power is ultimately fragile. The younger generation of Egyptians will not likely be satisfied with military rule any more than they were with Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. And they, more than most people living under authoritarianism, know the power of strategic nonviolent action in bringing down an entrenched repressive regime.

Stephen Zunes, a Santa Cruz resident, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.