Behind a barricade separating them from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of young Egyptian army officers were emphasising how Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had no ambitions to be the next Gamal Abdel Nasser. The general who deposed Mohamed Morsi, they continued, merely responded to a popular appeal to remove an autocrat who was ruining the country. It was – in the refrain which was to become so familiar – a revolution, not a coup.
It is certainly the case that there was significant support for the military among the vast numbers who became disenchanted and then alarmed as the Brotherhood focused on creating a theocratic state while mismanaging a collapsing economy. Sympathy for the Islamists killed by the security forces was also in short supply. The Brotherhood attacked and killed while in power, their thousands of opponents claimed; what goes around, comes around.
Despite the violence, there was a road map of sorts; an interim administration was appointed, a new constitution would be drawn up, and then there could be elections. There would be trouble when the Brotherhood supporters were cleared, acknowledged the young officers and their civilian supporters, but it would be a temporary annoyance at most.
The blood-letting that followed last week’s clearing of the Brotherhood’s Cairo camps has shattered such complacency. The conclusion internationally is that a trigger-happy junta will follow what has, indeed, been a coup and not a revolution. Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and deputy vice-president, has resigned in protest. There has been widespread condemnation: the US has cancelled its regular military exercise with Egyptian forces, Europe is discussing suspending aid, and Britain and France have asked for a UN security council debate.
I kept in touch with the young officers I met at Rabaa al-Adawiya. They insist they are fighting “criminals and terrorists”, and that the presentation of events in the Western media is the Brotherhood’s publicity machine at work, combined with a desire to portray Arab countries as inherently unstable. The US and Europe are guilty of hypocrisy, they maintain.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? And, sure enough, the more the bodies pile up, the more defiantly defensive they become. But this view is not only the preserve of conspiracy-theorists. Take Major Adil, a gunner who has served two US military placements and had planned to attend London’s Royal College of Defence Studies. He does not quite subscribe to the claim, rife on the streets, that the Americans and the Israelis are secretly supporting the Brotherhood. Instead, he points out previous examples of Western manipulation of Islamists, of which there are undeniably several.
Britain first made contact with reactionary Islamic groups before the Second World War, to gather information about activists involved in Egypt’s independence movement. By 1942, London had begun to finance the Brotherhood, hoping the Islamists would help counter “the virus of Arab nationalism”. In fact, the organisation had supported the Young Officers when they took power. But within two years, in 1954, Nasser banned the Brotherhood – just as Egypt’s military-backed government is threatening now. Amid charges ranging from terrorism to blocking land reforms was the allegation of conducting clandestine talks with the British.
Although many British diplomats in Cairo were impressed by what the new government was trying to achieve, within a year – even before Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal – the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was telling his Foreign Secretary he wanted the Egyptian leader “murdered”. Plans to do so, it has since been revealed, were discussed between the Brotherhood and MI6.
The Suez invasion planned by the UK, France and Israel failed miserably, partly due to the lack of US support. But the Americans soon also became alarmed by Nasser. President Eisenhower even went so far as to talk to the British government of the need for “a high-class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interest … which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies”. Miles Copeland, the senior CIA officer in Cairo – and, incidentally, the father of Stewart Copeland, drummer in The Police – was soon seeking an opposition figurehead, a “Muslim Billy Graham”, as he put it later. In this capacity, he formed a working relationship between the Brotherhood and US intelligence that would continue for years to come.
All this was some time ago now. But history is remembered vividly in times of conflict, and not just in the Middle East. Just look at the references in Northern Ireland to the Battle of the Boyne (1690) or in the Balkans to Kosovo Polje (1389). Past conspiracies pitting the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign states against the secular military may have little direct relevance to the security forces’ latest clampdown on pro-Morsi protesters. But they do show how the historical activities of perfidious Albion and Machiavellian America have shaped the suspicions and recriminations on the ground in Egypt today.