Report: Violence Widens Egypt’s Political Divide

Aug 07, 2013

            The political divide between supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohamed Morsi has dramatically widened as violence has risen, according to a new International Crisis Group Report. Nearly 200 Morsi supporters have been killed in clashes since the July 3 coup and scores of Islamist leaders have been detained. The army’s harsh crackdown has convinced the Brotherhood that it now faces an “existential moment in which any sign of weakness could lead to long-term suppression.” Furthermore, the Islamists have bet that many Egyptians will turn on the new order if stability is not restored soon, according to the report. Brotherhood supporters have vowed to stay in the streets until Morsi is reinstated. But the wider public, “impatient for a return to stability, could well turn a blind eye to an even more repressive crackdown,” the report warns.
            Bloodshed has deeply entrenched the two camps against each other, making political compromise more difficult. Negotiations may be particularly difficult because neither side is monolithic. Some ultraconservative Salafis have sided with the National Salvation Front (NSF), the coalition of liberal and secular parties. But even NSF members have not agreed on whether or not the Brotherhood should be allowed to return to politics. The report concludes that the most likely outcome is a prolonged stalemate, absent a political agreement between the two camps. The following are excerpts followed by a link to the full text. 

The Road to Violence
           Normalcy seems a distant prospect. The military, aided by the police and some elements of the judiciary, not only detained scores of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders and confronted protesters near military installations and the presidential palace, but shut down pro-Islamist media channels. The goal of this comprehensive clampdown appears to be to crush the Brotherhood. A retired senior security official said:
           They [the Islamists] have not given the army a choice. Morsi’s stubborn refusal to step down means that Sisi had to go all the way to neutralise them. The country cannot afford more instability. But the Brothers have brought this upon themselves.  Every few decades they make some grave mistakes that set them a few decades back. It is not different this time. The organisation will need a few decades to recover from this [crackdown].
           Yet, daily Brotherhood rallies and sit-ins are a constant reminder that nothing has been settled; hundreds of Muslim Brothers have been arrested, including many key leaders; the death toll is rising, as demonstrations in favour of the ousted president face attacks by authorities and anti-Morsi forces. On 27 July, security forces reportedly opened fire on a pro-Morsi rally as it ventured near military installations, leading to the deaths of at least 72 protesters. There have been at least an additional 180 deaths (mostly Morsi sympathisers) due to the unrest, not including roughly 30 resulting from militant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, thousands have been wounded.
           Risks of further bloodshed aside, the detention and repression of Brotherhood leaders – now expanding to include moderate Islamist politicians like Al-Wasat Party President Aboul Ela Madi– make any negotiation all the more elusive, as they deprive one of the two sides of the ability to consult, consider possible compromises and negotiate effectively.

Deepening Polarisation
           As violence rises, positions on all sides become more deeply entrenched. The Brotherhood, convinced it has legitimacy and time on its side, sees no interest in backing down; instead, it appears determined to show it will not go away; expose the new civilian leaders as puppets of the military and the military as a carbon copy of Mubarak’s repressive regime; and, ultimately, turn domestic and international opinion against current rulers. To acquiesce in the present reality, in the Brotherhood’s view, would be tantamount to a humiliating surrender; better to sustain mass mobilisation in Cairo and the provinces so as to deny the new government the veneer of stability and legitimacy it seeks.
           In a sense, the Brotherhood is stealing a page from its opponents’ pre-3 July strategy. The longer protests continue, the more likely – and frequent – will be acts of violence against them; the greater the chance of fractures among liberals and between liberals and the army; and the stronger international pressure will become on the military to shift course. Likewise, Islamists wager continued political instability, coupled with inevitable socio-economic hard ships, will drive many citizens to turn against the new order.
           Any internal debate within the Brotherhood regarding what went wrong and any lessons learned – about the need for a more inclusive, conciliatory approach, for ex-ample – is highly unlikely to take place when it is under siege. Instead, rank and file as well as leadership can be expected to band together and hold firm. For an organisation whose traditional motto has been patience, this will come naturally. A member and adviser to the leadership said:
           We are back to the decades of persecution and plight. We had only a two-year reprieve. We know that we have a long, peaceful struggle ahead of us, and so we are in no hurry to legitimise the coup. They [the army and new authorities] are desperate to restore normalcy, and their only option is repression. Well, we are ready to die.
           In this sense, the crackdown has solidified the Islamists’ determination and propelled their shift toward an ever more defensive mindset. As they see it, the “deep state” – remnants of the Mubarak regime in the security, judicial and business sectors – first prevented them from governing, despite their electoral mandate, and now is robbing them of all gains registered since the 2011 uprising. They blame a military intent on restoring the old order, and an elite dismissive of their right to participate in politics.
           Hence their relatively uncompromising position on issues such as Morsi’s reinstatement (though they apparently might contemplate a possible resignation as part of an overall package) and the validity of the 2012 constitution they consider their crowning achievement and basic guarantor of their political freedoms. A Brotherhood member and ex-Morsi adviser said, “we theoretically could agree on dropping the de-mand that Morsi complete his term, but without the constitution, what guarantees will we have to practise politics and operate normally without crackdowns and repression?”
           For its part, the military, persuaded of massive public backing and fearful of reempowering the Brotherhood were it to show any signs of weakness, is unwilling to give in or compromise; instead, it seems set on simultaneously subduing the Brotherhood and establishing political facts on the ground: a new government; a constitutional  revision committee; and a referendum followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. It also counts on substantial financial assistance from the Gulf – namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – to improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians.
           Short of a political agreement, the most likely outcome is a prolonged stalemate, repeated clashes and a transitional process in many ways fundamentally detached from reality, rejected by a significant portion of the population and unable to provide either normalcy or legitimacy. Nor should one underestimate the risk that some Islamists, convinced that the democratic process will never make room for them, drift toward violence. A Brotherhood member said:
           We are sick and tired of our leaders telling us to remain peaceful while we are being shot at and thrown into prison. Where was that peacefulness when secularists attacked our buildings and set them on fire, or when thugs killed our women? We need our leaders to just stop asking us to remain peaceful and let the group’s youth lead the charge.
           All of this has been accompanied by dizzying rhetorical escalation on both sides. Non-Islamist media denounce the Brotherhood as an extremist – even, at times, terrorist – organisation backed by foreign interests (notably Hamas members and Syrian refugees). On 26 July, Sisi urged “honourable, faithful Egyptians” to take to the streets and provide him with a “mandate to confront violence and potential terrorism”. The Muslim Brotherhood has dismissed opposition to its rule, denouncing a broad conspiracy hatched by remnants of the old regime, foreign interests, the Coptic Church and apostates.
           Neither camp is monolithic. As seen, the Salafi Al-Nour Party at key moments sided with non-Islamists against the Muslim Brothers; the sheikh of Al-Azhar – the nation’s pre-eminent Islamic institution – likewise endorsed the military’s move against Morsi. There are divisions among those latter forces as well; anecdotal reports suggest that Al-Nour members have joined pro-Morsi protests, and many Azhar scholars have voiced support for the deposed president.
           Non-Islamists have been far from homogeneous themselves; the episodic outbreaks of violence in which pro-Morsi protesters were killed have driven some to condemn the brutality of the security forces. Staunch opponents of the Brotherhood have disagreed over the right of Islamists to have their own parties, or compete in the political process.An increasing number of non-Islamists, despite paying lip-service to the notion of reconciliation, believe, however, that there is no place for their foes in the emerging political system. A National Salvation Front member said:
           The Muslim Brotherhood will be crushed by the army. There is no room for them in the new phase. The sooner they realise this, the better. The idea is for their leaders to give up now in order to allow their youth and followers an outlet to express their political views via Al-Nour or some other Islamist party. Perhaps years from now, once they have separated Daawa [religious proselytising] from politics, they would be allowed back in.
           An adviser to the interim president who works on national reconciliation added:
           The Brothers’ ethos is not one of integration or cooperation. They want to reign supreme. Some [in the non-Islamist camp] want to dismantle the Brotherhood completely; others to abolish their organisation without suppressing individual members. In any case, religion should be categorically separated from politics. We will need to remove the tumour that is the Muslim Brotherhood.
           Some members of the NSF express a startling degree of nonchalance about the risks inherent in excluding Islamists: The new mindset is that “yes”, Islamists may get radicalised, but we are ready to confront that and pay the cost for it. Things won’t be worse, violence-wise, than they were in the 1990s, and the security forces were able to contain that. The state apparatus is willing to deal with a cycle of violence rather than surrender its control over the state.
           Conversely, many Islamists – non-Brothers included – have come to conclude that this is a defining, existential moment in which any sign of weakness could lead to long-term suppression. A former Brotherhood member said, “almost all Islamists, and not just the Muslim Brotherhood, have reverted back to the discourse of plight and victimisation. They see this as an existential fight in which they could win all or lose all”.
           Some members of the NSF express a startling degree of nonchalance about the risks inherent in excluding Islamists: The new mindset is that “yes”, Islamists may get radicalised, but we are ready to confront that and pay the cost for it. Things won’t be worse, violence-wise, than they were in the 1990s, and the security forces were able to contain that. The state apparatus is willing to deal with a cycle of violence rather than surrender its control over the state.
           Conversely, many Islamists – non-Brothers included – have come to conclude that this is a defining, existential moment in which any sign of weakness could lead to long-term suppression. A former Brotherhood member said, “almost all Islamists, and not just the Muslim Brotherhood, have reverted back to the discourse of plight and victimisation. They see this as an existential fight in which they could win all or lose all.”

Zero-sum Politics
           Most political actors other than the Brotherhood and its allies have accepted – albeit with reservations – the new roadmap defined in the constitutional declaration issued by Mansour on 8 July: a nine-month transition plan that includes amendments to the 2012 constitution, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. Mansour has also pledged a national reconciliation effort but has said little about it. Although it purports to correct the flaws of the first transition, in many ways this hastily crafted plan repeats its mistakes – only this time under far more polarised and dangerous conditions. Aside from the unrealistically short timeframe, the proposed plan (like its predecessor) is being rushed through and focuses on a purely electoral outcome at the expense of a political consensus. This is all the more questionable given the likely boycott by an important constituency.
           Even assuming elections take place more or less on schedule, and even if a boycott proves ineffective, an outcome in which one side triumphs is a recipe for future crisis in the absence of basic agreement on both rules of the game and the ultimate political order. The Muslim Brotherhood failed in large part due to its blind belief in majoritarian politics; its putative successors hardly can succeed if they do the same. Indeed, debate about the nature of Egypt’s polity does not merely separate Islamists from non-Islamists, however important their differences.
           The anti-Morsi front has been held together by common hostility to the former president and his party but, underneath, deep divides persist, notably about the need for and pace of institutional reform, as well as the role and prerogatives of security agencies. As the military and police have come to play an ever greater role in recent events, those differences are likely to sharpen with time. Some young revolutionary groups, such as 6 April and the Revolutionary Socialists, have come to condemn the security forces’ use of force when confronting Morsi’s supporters and called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.

Perils Ahead
           At the present rate, use of violence as a means of achieving political ends is being routinised to a degree unprecedented in recent Egyptian history. Already, the non-Islamist media has taken to branding attacks against Muslim Brotherhood offices and members as “revolutionary” acts.
           The deaths on 8 July of dozens of pro-Morsi protesters in front of the Republican Guard’s social club and at their sit-in at Cairo University as well as those of over 80 on 27 July garnered only scant sympathy from opponents – even among many known for their longstanding struggle for civil and political rights. Airwaves and newspapers commonly refer to the protesters as terrorists. The wider public, impatient for a return to stability, could well turn a blind eye to an even more repressive crackdown.
           Rhetoric from the Islamist side also at times has been chilling. Members speak willingly of the blood of martyrs should their demands remain unmet. Too, there are reports of Brotherhood-led violence in several Cairo neighbourhoods, notably Manial, following Morsi’s ouster. Intermittent attacks by more radical Islamists against soldiers and police in the Sinai Peninsula – although presumably not orchestrated by the Brotherhood – are equally ominous signs of possible deterioration toward low-scale insurgency as disenfranchised citizens lose any remaining trust in the political process.
           All this further contributes to a dangerous erosion of the credibility and legitimacy of core state institutions. This already happened to the domestic judicial and security sectors after the 2011 uprising; since then, Islamists routinely have complained of the courts’ alleged bias and of police refusal to obey Morsi’s presidential orders.

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