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Exile and the Prophetic: Egypt’s martial law

Israel/Palestine
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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Though yesterday’s debate in the American press yesterday was about whether the removal of President Morsi was a military coup, the facts on the ground point to an even more troubling state of affairs.  Egypt is under martial law.

Egypt’s former President is under house arrest.   Many of his high ranking colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood are being hunted down.  There are reports of armed clashes in the Sinai Peninsula.  Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza is closed.  Counter demonstrations are large and continuing today.  The army is fully deployed throughout Egypt.  What the next days will bring is uncertain.

Whenever a military plays such a huge role as the army does in Egypt, the country isn’t going anywhere.  This is pretty much where Egypt has gone since the 1950s, appealing to its greatness while breeding a Western-oriented elite secured by dictatorship, martial law and economic and military links to the United States.

Meanwhile as Egypt devolves into martial law, Tablet has been war mongering, speculating that Egypt’s army might try to bolster its standing by going to war with Israel. Since militaries hate wars they can’t win and war would only bring more instability to a nation where the army’s stability guarantees its power, Tablet is off its rocker:

So, what’s left? A short war today—precipitated by a border incident in Sinai, or a missile gone awry in the Gaza Strip, and concluded before the military runs out of the ammunition that Washington will surely not resupply—will reunify the country and earn Egypt money from an international community eager to broker peace. Taking up arms against Israel will also return Egypt to its former place of prominence in an Arab world that is adrift in a sea of blood. But even more important is the fact that there is no other plausible way out: Sacrificing thousands of her sons on the altar of war is the only way to save Mother Egypt from herself.

It’s obvious to Tablet that Egypt is so unlike any other (non-Arab) country, say the United States or Israel.  God forbid we could ever say that Israel is willing to sacrifice her sons on the altar of war to save Mother Israel from itself.

We need to keep our eye on the ball.  Egypt’s situation is quite troubling but the problem with the military has little to do with it going to war.   The Egyptian military hasn’t gone to war full tilt since 1973.  They’ve been too busy on the domestic front.

Part of the problem has to do with the huge role the army plays in Egyptian society far beyond the political. In fact, the army’s economic reach is mindboggling.  It involves manufacturing and distributing a wide variety of products – from washing machines, heaters, clothing, doors and stationary to pharmaceuticals, and microscopes. The army also sponsors major national infrastructure projects. You name it – construction of power lines, sewers, bridges, overpasses, roads, schools, and installing and maintaining telephone exchanges – the army is involved.  

For the moment, all this is beside the point.  Or is it? 

This hardly takes into account the role the army plays in socializing Egypt’s youth.  Its constant presence throughout Egyptian life is itself a power.

We should remember that martial law is rarely limited to this or that recognizable opponent.  If dissidents who support the army’s ouster of Morsi really believe that Egypt’s army will set them free, they should think again.

Martial law is rarely limited.  But, then, hasn’t Egypt been under various forms of martial law for the last fifty years and more?

Perhaps this time it is different.

Egypt is turmoil.  Very likely it is going to get worse.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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7 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    July 5, 2013, 12:41 pm

    Good article.

  2. MHughes976
    MHughes976
    July 5, 2013, 4:33 pm

    Every way forward is a blind alley, or so it seems to me. We have committed religious people ruling in ways that offend everyone outside their own ranks, which are being whittled away and deprived of their old enthusiasm by the steady drip of economic suffering. We have an army which is an organisation of privileged families supported by western governments, ie with interests fundamentally opposed to the overall interests of their people. We have liberal secularists who, to free themselves from a mixture of economic calamity and religious oppression, can see no alternative to the deeply anti-liberal apparatus of martial law. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? We could really do, as Marc Ellis has been reminding us for many months past, with a prophetic voice.

  3. just
    just
    July 5, 2013, 5:59 pm

    I would hate to live under martial law– I would never trust it, ever.

    I especially would not trust a military as all- powerful as Egypt’s during this frightening time. Now people are dying and being wounded………. chaos.

    Thank you, Marc.

  4. Keith
    Keith
    July 5, 2013, 6:53 pm

    MARC ELLIS- Professor, you are on a roll. Another good article. As for Egypt going to war with Israel, do the folks at Tablet actually believe that? Egypt’s cooperation with Israel was closer with Morsi than Mubarak, and a leading secular candidate to replace Morsi has promised closer ties yet. Yup, one of the candidates for President is lobbying for Israeli and American Jewish support. A quote followed by a link.

    “Israel is also being promised by ElBaradei’s agents, major security cooperation with Egypt, under which they also pledge to the White House, will continue to grow stronger. ElBaradei’s objective is to secure Barack Obama’s personal support during his jockeying for the White House imprimatur for the expected soon to be held Egyptian presidential election and before.” (Franklin Lamb)
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/07/05/is-obama-back-elbaradei/

  5. American
    American
    July 5, 2013, 8:46 pm

    ”Part of the problem has to do with the huge role the army plays in Egyptian society far beyond the political. In fact, the army’s economic reach is mindboggling. It involves manufacturing and distributing a wide variety of products – from washing machines, heaters, clothing, doors and stationary to pharmaceuticals, and microscopes. The army also sponsors major national infrastructure projects. You name it – construction of power lines, sewers, bridges, overpasses, roads, schools, and installing and maintaining telephone exchanges – the army is involved.

    For the moment, all this is beside the point. Or is it?….marc ellis
    >>>>>>

    No it’s not beside the point at all…it’s a huge factor…glad to see it stressed.
    I’ve been mentoning it also cause not many are considering the military’s own possible agenda in this overthrow.

  6. thankgodimatheist
    thankgodimatheist
    July 6, 2013, 1:13 am

    “Egypt is turmoil. Very likely it is going to get worse.”
    I can’t wait to see the brave and determined Egyptian people teach you all condescending skeptics and doomsayers a lesson. Can’t wait.

  7. Citizen
    Citizen
    July 6, 2013, 5:15 am

    I read somewhere from an Egyptian pundit that the Egyptian military didn’t think Morsi was doing enough to stifle the Palestinians at the border, and now they are, filling in tunnels, etc. If so, it appears the Egyptian military feels it’s always most urgent to keep that US aid flowing to it.
    As a partial aside, does anyone know if and when Egypt quit giving Israel such a deep discount on gas? I know under Mubarak, the people griped they had to pay more than the Israelis for Egyptian gas.

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