CAIRO — Egyptians call it the “deep state.”
And it was there all along for anyone who wanted to see it throughout the two and a half years since the world watched Egyptians take to the streets in what was so widely viewed as a revolution by the people, for the people.
It was reflected in the dark sunglasses of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this summer as he moved in on July 3 with tanks and troops to topple the new government dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and to detain Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi before he had served a full year in office.
It was echoed in the rumble of the Egyptian Air Force jets that streaked overhead and painted the sky with tri-color vapors of the Egyptian flag as the huge crowds of anti-Morsi protesters cheered in the streets below.
And it reverberated in the silence of Washington as the Obama administration watched these events unfold on Fourth of July weekend without interfering or offering condemnation of what was in effect a military coup, even if the White House refused to use those words.
To Egyptians, the “deep state” has become a part of the national vocabulary, a phrase ubiquitous in Cairo these days after a tumultuous and violent summer of protest marches and street battles that ended with the military once again back in charge.
The expression refers to the layers of military, political and bureaucratic bedrock that make up the 60-year rule of Egypt’s military generals that was embodied for 30 years by President Hosni Mubarak. That is, until he was deposed in the wake of the popular unrest of early 2011 that came to be known as the January 25 Revolution.
In present day, the democratically elected Morsi is under arrest and the ousted Mubarak has been released from jail pending trial. So Egyptians and the world are left wondering if the heady events of early 2011 really was a revolution after all. To many analysts, activists and historians here, it is hard to see it as one since it is clear the “deep state” has so dramatically and violently reasserted its authority.
Defining the ‘Deep State’
So what exactly is the “deep state?”
It is a pyramid of power with 350,000 military troops at the base with a command structure that routinely trains at the US Army War College. In the inner chamber is the treasure chest of $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the US Brick by brick, the structure is supported by a vast economic empire controlled by the military, including manufacturing, construction, fuel, energy and more. These are managed through a network rife with cronyism and corruption, according to many experts quoted in a 2012 GlobalPost-FRONTLINE investigation of the military’s economic power.
Then there is the police state, the Supreme Court, the state-run media and, holding it all together, the 21 military generals of the Supreme Council of Allied Forces, known as the SCAF. At the very top of this pyramid is the youngest of those SCAF generals and the one now presiding over this structural “deep state”: Gen. al-Sisi.
Nathan Brown, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and an expert on Islamist movements in the Middle East, said, “The term ‘deep state,’ originally comes from Turkey. The sense that the military is not necessarily ruling directly but what you have is kind of underneath the surface of politics, this underlying set of structures that’s running things.”
And as Amr Darrag, a member of the Executive Committee in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party who was part of the inner circle around Morsi as the dramatic events unfolded in early July, said, the “deep state” is “much deeper than what everybody thought.”
“It is really very deep because it’s a result of 60 years of bad governments and corruption, so you need some time. And you need real—drastic measures in order to be able to get rid of that,” Darrag added.
Long, hot summer
It was a simmering summer of unrest and violence in Egypt which began on June 30 when as many as 20 million demonstrators took to the streets across Egypt to protest what they saw as the failed leadership of Morsi.
Morsi’s handpicked defense minister, a relatively young and charismatic general who emerged from the Supreme Council of the Allied Forces, or SCAF, suddenly and dramatically issued an ultimatum to Morsi to call for new elections or face his ouster. On July 3, Gen. al-Sisi delivered on his threat when security forces escorted Morsi out of the presidential palace and placed him in detention at an undisclosed military location.
Counter-protests by Morsi supporters and members of the lumbering Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic movement from which Morsi and his political party emerged, were brutally suppressed by the police and military.
In one clash on July 8, more than 50 civilian protesters were gunned down. The Muslim Brotherhood dug in at a sprawling camp around the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr City just as the holy month of Ramadan began. For the next 30 days, the Islamists fasted all day and fought all night in running street battles against the security forces.
Until the military decided enough was enough.
On August 14, troops moved in with tanks, tear gas and snipers on rooftops to clear the square. By day’s end, more than 600 people were killed in the military crackdown.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been crushed, at least for now. Their leaders were arrested or sent into hiding. Some fled the country. The movement was forced underground, the place where for the last 80 years it has built its base and thrived in the shadows.
The question now is how does the country move forward without some form of reconciliation with this vast movement that captures the hearts of so many Muslims in Egypt. Experts on Egypt and Islamist movements agree that the Muslim Brotherhood, with some 700,000 dues-paying members and a wide support that gave it nearly 40 percent of the seats in parliament in 2012 elections, is a political and religious energy source that will not go away any time soon.
It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood’s political energy will be harnessed for the future of Egypt, or thwarted and left to build in pressure underground just as it did for so many decades before the streets of Egypt exploded in revolution in 2011.
History will provide an answer. But for now, the “deep state” is still in charge.
GlobalPost’s Charles M. Sennott has reported on Egypt for 20 years and was a FRONTLINE correspondent on the ground in Tahrir Square in early 2011. With FRONTLINE in association with Rain Media and GlobalPost, Sennott’s reporting for a segment titled “The Brothers” was part of the one-hour documentary, “A Revolution in Cairo.” Throughout the last two and a half years, Sennott has retuned to Egypt at many dramatic turning points in the story and this summer partnered again with FRONTLINE and Rain Media as a correspondent for the FRONTLINE documentary “Egypt in Crisis” airing September 17, 2013 on PBS.