Months since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt remains in turmoil, and has dominated the news headlines for much of that time. Despite this, little has actually changed in the country.
Opposing sides are doggedly maintaining their strategies, in the misplaced belief that they are gaining the upper hand. What they do not seem to realise is that they are pursuing dead-end policies that need to change, not just for their own self-interests, but for the good of the entire country.
That the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Morsi hails – and its allies have continued to hold large nationwide rallies since his ouster has confounded the expectations of many. However, they have not been able to attract a critical mass sufficient to bring down the interim government. In addition, street protests cannot go on indefinitely.
People will eventually tire if they see that demonstrations are not making a discernible difference, and so far they are not. In fact, their numbers are decreasing.
This is not necessarily due to dwindling support for the movements involved, and not just because of fatigue among protesters. Security forces have arrested many opposition leaders and spokespeople, making it increasingly difficult to organise and publicise demonstrations.
The crackdown has been deadly and unrelenting. Thousands have been killed, wounded or detained by security forces with a history of human rights abuses.
Morsi’s supporters are paying dearly for their defiance, a price they cannot pay in perpetuity.
The Brotherhood and its allies cannot, indeed should not, rely on the authorities’ brutality to galvanise protesters and garner media attention. This would be deeply cynical, cheapening the lives of protesters and turning them into mere pawns in a chess game. That is not a viable strategy, and would backfire in the long term. Media coverage has already waned considerably, and no one should hope for another massacre to reverse that.
It was inevitable, albeit unfortunate, that media coverage would decline as time went on. Anything that persists long enough eventually ceases to remain news- worthy, and Egypt’s crisis shows no signs of resolution anytime soon.
In addition, the media tends to cover one flashpoint at a time before moving on – this is particularly true in light of decreasing budgets for foreign news. As such, Morsi’s supporters cannot count on the media to keep their cause in the spotlight – at some point not far away, it might fall off the radar completely. Of course, the clampdown against news organisations in Egypt that do not follow the official line is contributing considerably to the attention deficit.
The Brotherhood needs to accept three central realities: that Morsi’s presidency caused widespread alienation, public discontent and national division; that his return to power is thus wishful thinking; and that the movement risks irrelevancy if it continuously refuses to engage with the new authorities or return to the political process, as difficult as this may be to stomach.
Other parties with whom the Brotherhood has had common cause are accepting the need for cautious pragmatism. There also seems to be growing internal divisions between those remaining steadfast, and those trying to find a way out of the impasse not just for the good of their country, but to avoid being left out in the cold.
If these divisions persist, they could lead to the splintering of the Brotherhood. This may already be happening, given the marked rise in violence and militancy since Morsi’s overthrow. While the opposition’s feelings of futility about embracing politics again is understandable, there is no viable alternative.
Those resorting to arms must realise that they cannot successfully take on a much more powerful army that enjoys considerable public support for its zero-tolerance approach, as well as huge economic, political and military aid from key foreign backers. Causing instability for the sake of it will not win any sympathy – on the contrary.
Statements and actions by the authorities highlight a sense of confidence that they are prevailing over their opponents. In reality, however, they are living on borrowed time, for their strategies are also unsustainable in the long run.
The iron fist against dissent has certainly hampered the ability to express it, but that does not mean grievances will magically vanish. The crackdown will either drive the opposition underground, add to its ranks, or galvanise Egypt’s nascent ‘third camp’ – those who are neither pro-Morsi nor pro-military – to speak out against state repression. All three scenarios pose a serious and direct challenge to the authorities.
The third camp is already growing and becoming more vocal, albeit slowly given the highly polarised state of affairs. It will continue to do so as long as the crisis continues. The most high-profile figure so far in this regard is Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, who resigned as interim vice president in August after the violent dispersal of protest sit-ins that left at least several hundred civilians dead.
“I always saw peaceful alternatives for resolving this societal wrangling. Certain solutions were proposed which could have led to national conciliation, but things have come this far,” he said in his resignation letter. “It has become difficult for me to continue bearing the responsibility for decisions with which I do not agree, and I fear their consequences. I cannot bear the responsibility for a single drop of blood…”
ElBaradei quickly went from revolutionary poster boy to national traitor, and he is to be tried in absentia for “betrayal of trust” (he left Egypt for Vienna after resigning). The authorities are clearly making an example of him, to dissuade others from following in his footsteps.
“This is a reflection of the atmosphere in Egypt right now. You can’t take your independent stand, or other- wise you’ll be considered breaching national trust,” said Khaled Dawoud, a former spokesman of the National Salvation Front, which was instrumental in bringing down Morsi, and which was co-founded by ElBaradei. Dawoud described the case as “ridiculous.”
If the status quo continues or worsens, more and more people will speak out, not out of any sympathy with Morsi or his supporters, but out of recognition that their country is heading down a dark path.
The interim government’s authoritarianism and heavy-handedness are alienating important elements of the Islamist camp that were willing to work with it. For example, Al Nour – which won the second-largest number of seats after the Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections – suspended its cooperation with the authorities due to the killing of protesters.
Furthermore, the Cairo-based Al Azhar – which sup- ported Morsi’s overthrow, and is the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam – has distanced itself from the violent methods employed in the crackdown.
There is talk of outlawing the Brotherhood. Besides the fact that this goes against the interim government’s promised path to democracy and inclusivity, banning the movement has not worked in the past, and will not do so now. The authorities must accept that the Brotherhood, like it or not, represents a large segment of Egyptian society, whose disenfranchisement will only make things worse by dooming any genuine attempt at vital national reconciliation.
There must also be a recognition that the crackdown has been unnecessarily heavy-handed, as documented by respected international and local human rights organisations. This has no doubt contributed to the stark rise in violence and militancy since Morsi’s overthrow, as people feel they have no other outlet for their discontent.
Remember that one of the central reasons given for his ouster was to avoid exactly the kind of national bloodshed that is now taking place. While the security forces currently have popular support for their tactics, they cannot kill protesters and curb basic freedoms in- definitely without an inevitable backlash from a public fed up of decades of dictatorship.
The authorities must keep in mind that not long ago, the full spectrum of Egyptian society was protesting the army’s refusal to relinquish power to civilian government after the overthrow of Morsi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak, as the military had promised to do.
As the country’s recently renewed state of emergency is extended, and as Egyptians see further indications of authoritarianism that will affect them all, they will not continue to follow blindly.
As such, the promise to restore genuinely democratic and independent civilian rule must be kept, as quickly as possible, and as inclusively as possible. Given the country’s history of totalitarianism, and the widely held view that Morsi’s year in office was disastrous, public patience is understandably in short supply.
Meanwhile, international concern at events in Egypt has been rising steadily. Morsi’s overthrow has sharply split regional opinion. The authorities’ crackdown has prompted the European Union – a major source of aid, loans, business and tourists for Egypt – to “urgently review” its relations with Cairo, and to suspend sales of any arms that could be used for repression.
“The calls for democracy and fundamental freedoms from the Egyptian population cannot be disregarded, much less washed away in blood,” said European Com- mission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy.
Furthermore, the United States is considering suspending aid to Cairo, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemning “a series of actions the Egyptian government has taken that doesn’t reflect their commitment to an inclusive political process, to respect for basic human rights like the right to protest peacefully. Continued violations of basic human rights don’t make the transfer of… aid more likely.”
Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have vowed to offset any aid reduction. However, it would be unwise for Cairo to put all its eggs in one basket by relying on this and alienating the EU and the world’s only super- power – with which it has had traditionally good relations – as well as other major international players. After all, they are vital to Egypt in ways other than aid that Gulf states will not be able to adequately replace. In addition, the United States is highly influential within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, from which Egypt is seeking billions of dollars in much- needed loans. Economic stagnation and decline were fundamental reasons behind the Arab Spring, including the overthrow of Mubarak and Morsi. Egypt’s current authorities should not think that people will react any differently if the economy continues to struggle under their watch.
Political affiliations are secondary when people cannot find jobs, put food on the table or a roof over their heads, or clothe and educate their children. The Brotherhood found that out the hard way – it remains to be seen whether those now in power will learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. As things stand, it is hard to be optimistic.