The “Islamic State” franchise in Libya, which is emerging as the main winner in that country’s chaotic civil war, published a video on Sunday showing 21 Egyptian men in orange overalls being forced to the ground and beheaded. The video made it clear that they were being killed for being Christian, “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
Within hours the Egyptian Air Force responded with raids on Islamic State camps and training sites in Derna, the group’s headquarters in eastern Libya. Announcing the safe return of all the aircraft, the Egyptian military authorities declared: “Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them.” But it didn’t really protect them, did it?
Okay, that’s not fair. Everybody knows that you can’t protect people once they fall into the hands of the jihadi head-choppers. An air force is a particularly unsuitable tool for that job, nor can anyone stop unemployed Egyptian laborers, including members of the Christian minority, from seeking work even in war-torn Libya. Most of the victims came from a dirt-poor Christian village in Upper Egypt, and they had to feed their families somehow.
So the Islamic State fanatics murdered them because killing Christians attracts recruits from a certain demographic. Then the Egyptian Air Force flailed out aimlessly, and the public relations boys wrote the usual guff about the air force being a shield for the people. So far, so tediously normal — but the whole event also serves the narrative of the Egyptian military regime.
We’re not supposed to call it a military regime. The military coup (with substantial popular support) that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 was allegedly just a brief detour from democracy. But the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, ended up as president, and the promised parliamentary elections have still not happened.
Why not? The main excuse Egyptians are offered is that the government is too busy fighting a huge terrorist threat. And don’t mention that the terrorism is largely the regime’s own fault, or that the threat is not so big that normal political life must be suspended. People who say that have featured prominently among the 40,000 who have been arrested since July 2013. (16,000 are still in prison.)
What happened in Egypt 20 months ago was a betrayal of the democratic revolution of February 2011, when peaceful demonstrators forced former Gen. Hosni Mubarak out after 30 years as president. Few of the urban, relatively well educated revolutionaries on Tahrir Square supported the Muslim Brotherhood, but they should not have been surprised when it won the first free election.
Ninety percent of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are deeply conservative rural people. They remembered that the Muslim Brotherhood had been Egypt’s main opposition party during the decades of dictatorship. They shared many of its values, and many of them had benefited from its social programs for the poor.
They reckoned the Muslim Brotherhood deserved the first go in power, and gave it their votes. More secular people were appalled when the Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly amended the constitution to give it more religious content, although the changes were not actually all that extreme. And they forgot that in a democracy, you can change the government by voting it out. You just have to wait for the next election.
Victory in the first post-revolution election was a poisoned apple for the Muslim Brotherhood. Every day its behavior in power was alienating more people. The economy was a wreck (and still is). But the Brotherhood was not making irreversible changes in Egypt, so the right strategy was to wait it out, and then vote it out.
Instead, the naive and impatient revolutionaries made an alliance with the army to drive the elected government from power. Did they think that the army, despite 60 years of military dictators in Egypt, was a secret ally of democracy? El-Sissi accepted their support, took over the government in 2013, and put Morsi in jail. Shortly later, he began putting the revolutionaries in jail too.
But el-Sissi needs some excuse for destroying Egypt’s democratic revolution, and the excuse is terrorism, the bigger the better. He declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and when tens of thousands of non-violent supporters of the Brotherhood established a protest camp in Rabaa Square in Cairo he cleared it by force, killing at least 627 people by the government’s own count.
Human Rights Watch has documented at least 817 deaths, and suspects there were more than a thousand. It was, said an HRW report last August, a premeditated assault equal to or worse than the massacre of Chinese protesters on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989. The purpose, as in 1989, was to cow the population into submission, and it is working in Egypt as well as it did in China.
Terrorism, real and imaginary, helps to distract attention at home and abroad from what actually happened in Egypt. Even before the ghastly slaughter of innocent Egyptians in Libya on Sunday, the U.S. Congress had put military aid to Egypt back into this year’s budget proposal.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent Canadian journalist and historian based in London.