[avioletmind gave me permission to answer this publicly when she asked it what feels like a million years ago, not long after the Raba3a massacre.]
There are three things going on here: corrupt media and the complete lack of any culture of media skepticism; fear of Islamism and the Ikhwan in particular (based in decades of demonization and repression thereof) playing into resurgent nationalism; popularity of the army (also tied up in nationalism) and a long history of venerated military coups in Egypt.
Okay, this turned out to be, like, a major history of Egyptian nationalism and the role of the army and Ikhwan therein, sooooo it’s gonna be pretty long. Let me try to set it up for you guys before I go into detail: Egyptian nationalism and Egypt’s modern political history are deeply intertwined with the army. Egyptian political history is Egyptian military history. The rise in nationalism after the coup, the very low popularity of the Ikhwan, the specific positions the Ikhwan and military found themselves in post-coup, and the Ikhwan’s own history have all come together to make people pretty inclined to reject and demonize the Brotherhood to begin with. Egypt’s media structure and environment basically delivers, cements, and reinforces that feeling. Calling them terrorists is a way of rejecting them, making them the scapegoat of nationalism and helping the public allow themselves to support the army’s treatment of the Ikhwan even when it contradicts their liberal-revolutionary ideals.
Okay? Let’s go. I keep trying to tell myself I don’t need to go into this much detail, but I really sort of think I do, so just bear with me, please.
The background to all of this is Egypt’s history of coups and revolutions, which predisposes people to trust the army and see having it in a position of power as reasonable; it’s also the reason that Egyptian nationalism is so intertwined with the army as an institution. The army is seen as the savior of the people due to a long, long history of its acting as a corrective agent to the state and leading or being involved with populist revolutions, so whoever is opposed to them must be awful, yes? Their word can be trusted, for they are concerned with the security and integrity of Egypt, yes? TOTES. Step one, with Muhammad Ali Pasha, was the separation of Egypt from the rest of the Islamic world and the rise of a national consciousness; step two, started by Orabi and continued through to Nasser, was the creation of a heavily populist, somewhat ethnically chauvinist (an “Egypt for the Egyptians” sort of thing), nationalist consciousness.
Modern Egypt is generally considered to have really been born under Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Ottoman governor who was not himself Egyptian but essentially rebelled against the Ottoman Empire as a whole in order to separate Egypt and rule it himself. We don’t need to go into detail here; just noting it because it’s the founding of Egypt as a separate state (though at that point Sudan was still part of it) on the basis of a coup that wouldn’t have been possible without military power and prowess.
But things really got started with the Orabi Revolt, later in the nineteenth century. At this point, Egypt wasn’t formally occupied by Britain, but it was dominated by French and British interests. The budget was fucked, the civil service was full of Europeans (holding back ambitious Egyptians), the ruler was chosen by Britain, the fellahin (peasant class) were heavily taxed, etc. In addition to all this, even in the non-European ranks, Turks and Albanians (an inheritance from the Ottoman era and from Mohammad Ali Pasha’s rule, as he himself was ethnically Albanian) were generally more privileged than Egyptians. Ahmed Orabi was an ethnically Egyptian army colonel, the first to rise to national political-military leadership from the fellahin class, who led an uprising against this state of affairs. It was a largely populist/lower-class supported revolution, and these qualities were embodied in its leader. It failed, though, and actually precipitated the actual British occupation.
Egyptian nationalism really flowered in the way we know it today with Mohammad Naguib and Nasser. The two of them were the main leaders of the 1952 revolution that ended British occupation and the vestigial Egyptian monarchy. Both were high-ranking officers, and they were part of a somewhat larger group called the Free Officers that was responsible for the revolution. This is the founding of the Egyptian state we have today, and it’s on the back of the military. It’s super important to note that the Free Officers’ stated intent was not to install themselves in power, but to introduce a parliamentary democracy, just as the military’s stated intent was during the SCAF transitional period and again now. That didn’t end up happening—Naguib and then Nasser did end up in power (a political dynasty carried on by Sadat and Mubarak), and parliamentarism didn’t really get installed in any meaningful way, but it set a precedent for military intervention as a legitimate means of liberal-democratic political reform. This is really the birth of the army’s role as a corrective or midwife.
Now, this is key: after the Free Officers’ revolution, the officers saw their future role as “guardians of the people’s interests…while leaving the day-to-day business of governing to others.” (source) This is exactly what the army has claimed to be doing this year, and a lot of Egyptians, rightly or wrongly, would agree. This is, in fact, what the military does all the time. (I’m not saying I agree with their stewardship of the people’s interests, but this is why they stay out of official politics but happily run everything anyway. This is what they do.)
A year or two later, Nasser staged a coup that overthrew Naguib, largely because Naguib was less interested in Nasser’s heavily populist economic reforms and was, at least in his eyes, cozying up to preexisting political sources of power (including, DUN DUN DUNNNN, the Ikhwan). So again, we have a coup as the instrument of populism. Nasser, as a lot of you probably know, is still revered by many in Egypt, was more or less the father and figurehead of 20th-century pan-Arab nationalism, and established a lot of the statism and planned aspects of Egypt’s economy, the legacy of which is still very active; his time in power is often considered a kind of a golden age—so his actions are definitely seen and presented positively for the most part. The coup itself relied on who controlled what within the military and security forces, as did the 2011 revolution. Interestingly, during the anti-Naguib coup, Nasser used some very familiar language and tactics. He and the officers decreed the re-legalization of other political parties and banned officers’ holding government positions. In essentially revoking their own revolution, they provoked a massive outpouring of support for them from, again, populist elements (source), so that Nasser could then revoke those decrees as a response “to the impulse of the street.” (source) Sounds a lot like the way Sisi has talked lately, no? Egypt’s current military didn’t orchestrate Morsi’s bungling—or not completely, anyway, we can argue about what was going on toward the end—but they used it in exactly the way Nasser used those decrees.
After him came Sadat (also a member of the Free Officers) and Mubarak (a former Air Force officer), not through coups but through political inheritance—and we all know what followed after Mubarak. So almost every one of Egypt’s major political transitions has been some kind of a military coup. All of these men, every leader Egypt has had that led it toward independence and/or “modernization” and statebuilding, has been a military leader and officer.
So it’s clear that the military and the government have been inseparable, always. That the military remains deeply popular, that its being in charge doesn’t seem reflexively wrong to everyone, shouldn’t really surprise us. The army, as I’ve written about before, did a good job of positioning itself as the friend of the people in the first revolution, wisely kept a low profile to let its popularity recover after SCAF rule, and has now successfully revived the tradition of military coups or revolutions (deviated from literally once, in 2011). In several of these cases, the officers leading these revolutions really were on the side of “the people” in a populist sense, in effect if not necessarily in every allegiance or motivation. The military has been Egypt’s instrument of correction for the state, which is why I keep comparing Egypt to Turkey. So what happened on the 30th wasn’t an aberration, and Egyptian nationalism is primed to respond to events of this kind. The Ikhwan, as the losers here, are naturally going to be an object of the negative side of that nationalism, and there are historical reasons that make them in particular very vulnerable to that. As I’ll talk about next, nationalism needs a scapegoat.
Now for the particular hatred toward the Ikhwan, which magnifies all the negativity any group in their position would be receiving right now. Egypt does have some history with Islamist terrorism, but generally not perpetrated by the Ikhwan itself—but that doesn’t keep them from being the figurehead of everything anti-Islamist people don’t like. Egypt has been becoming steadily more conservative and Islamist for the last thirty years, like much of the Arab world. People who aren’t into that lifestyle and worldview are consequently incredibly anxious about a creeping tide of restrictions, most of which have not come to pass in any formal way but either are appearing as norms (standards for womens’ clothing, for example) or simply things people see in other countries and are afraid of in Egypt. (Remember that time there was a pro-beer protest because people were worried alcohol would be outlawed? Not even weird or surprising. I’ve never seen any evidence of a push to criminalize alcohol, anywhere, but this is the kind of thing some people worry about.) The Ikhwan is the single most powerful and competent organization on the side of Islamism; it’s sort of the standard-bearer, and it’s definitely seen that way by those who don’t like their ideas.
To look a little at the Ikhwan’s part in the history we just went over, which, again, makes its position now even worse: the organization was a major political force before the Free Officers’ coup, and at one point demanded representation on the officers’ governing body once it became clear that was the real seat of government. They were more or less brushed off, which was Nasser’s doing. They were also one of the older, pre-revolution powers that Naguib was getting closer to when Nasser turned on him. The Ikhwan, who rightly identified Nasser as an obstacle to their political future and also an illiberal force, as he was deposing their ally, opposed his takeover in every way possible: thousands of them protested Naguib’s house arrest, and eventually they tried to assassinate Nasser (still during the coup). This was basically the end of their legitimate existence. 20,000 of them were detained in camps and only about 1,000 tried; the organization’s property was confiscated; even sympathizing with it was outlawed. (source) This is the beginning of the Ikhwan as a persecuted organization, and this is why it was banned.
So you can see, there’s already a general thought pattern of Ikhwan vs. military, Ikhwan vs. legitimate government, Ikhwan as spoilers, especially because Nasser was (and still is, in many circles) so popular. Specifically because this was very shortly after the Free Officers’ revolution that ended British occupation and the vestiges of the monarchy, there’s also a shadow of Ikhwan vs. revolution, which you can see echoed in all the cries of Morsi having derailed or hijacked the 2011 revolution. Finally, the assassination attempt in particular makes it easy to associate their historical role with terrorism, even though the Brotherhood is not, in fact, a terrorist organization and never has been (in Egypt).
As we all know, things got better for them: they gained a lot of power and popularity over the last decade or two with their social activities, which is mostly what got them elected, but then Morsi completely shit the bed, so their popularity was at a historic low. By the time June 30th rolled around, they were incredibly politically vulnerable.
To tie these two history lessons together with a nationalist bow: the demonization of the Ikhwan, aside from simply being almost inevitable under these circumstances, is also connected to a specific upsurge in nationalism after the coup. People were making a huge deal out of the size of the protests and the repeat of 2011 as a kind of national pride—look what Egypt can do!!! Because of the historical connections between the army and nationalism/populism, the key role the military has played in every single major political transition in Egypt’s modern history, it makes sense that this upsurge in national pride after getting rid of an embarrassing president and, supposedly, getting a reboot of 2011 should attach itself to a positive view of the military. This natural tendency is reinforced by the fact that the military a) knows damn well that this is a thing and encouraged it (they dropped Egyptian flags over Tahrir from helicopters, they know what the hell they’re doing) and b) really did just get rid of an incredibly unpopular president.
But nationalism likes scapegoats, because it’s about saying “we’re this and not that, that is gross and we are the greatest.” And who is the traditional scapegoat of military-associated populist nationalism? The Ikhwan. Painting them as terrorists is simply using today’s vocabulary for casting someone out. Terrorists are rejected, they are beyond the pale, they are unforgivable, they are opposed to all that is good and right. Since the military is in charge, their set of tools is security-oriented, so presenting the Ikhwan as terrorists puts dealing with them in the military’s purview and gives them a good reason to give people for why they’ve been so brutal. So we have the military coming in to deliver you from the Ikhwan “in response to the people’s will,” as we just saw is traditional, and the Ikhwan, who you’re primed to mistrust, resisting them, and every media outlet telling you that the Ikhwan are terrorists and—well, it’s not that hard to believe, unless you’re an Ikhwani loyalist, no?
Finally: The media thing is the simplest, thank god. There’s very little recent history of independent and critical media in Egypt, and what examples there have been have been pretty effectively stamped out by the regime. The people who make the media, who report news, tend to be either connected to the government due to the history of control, or of the sort who would hate and fear the Ikhwan; I remember seeing footage of people literally dancing and cheering in the ONTV studio when the most recent coup occurred. (And ONTV is meant to be more independent and “modern” than most outlets, which is crap.) So the mass media is happy and habituated to put out whatever propaganda the people in charge would like, and particularly in this case were pretty enthusiastic about the army and its harsh dealing with the Ikhwan. Here’s one example of the army feeding very specific misinformation about the Ikhwan being ghoulishly horrible to the media and the media promptly spreading and “confirming” it.
Add to this the fact that the vast majority of the Egyptian public has never been educated in terms of media literacy or skepticism, how to do research themselves, how to evaluate the legitimacy of a claim or source, and you get basically no check on the demonization of the Ikhwan. Egypt has no culture of questioning the news, and as this article on Egyptian nationalism states, there’s a general tradition of respect for state institutions, if not always for the individuals inhabiting them. The Ikhwan pushing back itself is immediately dismissed, partly because they’re obviously self-interested, partly because of the specific and heightened fears toward them, and partly because they themselves have poisoned the well even with somewhat more skeptical people with clumsily propagandistic and biased media behavior in the past. They have no credibility, and they did that to themselves many times over.
So basically: the media is eager to serve the army’s purposes, and the vast majority of people have no tools for questioning the media. Those who do are going to tend to be people who are naturally against the Ikhwan (wealthy, secular-ish, Westernized, possibly educated abroad). Nobody without existing loyalty to the Ikhwan is likely to put any stock in what they say. If the army wants it put out that the Ikhwan are terrorists, that’s going to be what most people believe.
Put it all together and you turn yourself around, and whoa hey! the Ikhwan are terrorists. Thank goodness the army is dealing with them!