Experts Reflect on Egypt's Turmoil

The body count is rising across Egypt. The latest crackdown on demonstrators by the interim government has the potential to ignite a prolonged period of violence in the Arab world’s most populous country.

The recent wave of unrest began when the military and social movements ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president. Critics of Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood say the former president was acting like a dictator who had lost popular support, and thus he needed to be deposed in order to pave the way for new elections. 

While the causes of Egypt’s political and social problems are debatable, there is consensus that the country is facing exceptional chaos and bloodshed. 

To help shed light on the current crisis, Al Jazeera canvassed opinions from several leading Middle East experts to help analyse recent developments. 

If the official toll is 500+, common sense would suggest that the real toll is likely to be several times that figure. A South African colleague wrote yesterday recalling the outrage that followed the killing of 69 at Sharpeville in 1960 and 169 at Soweto in 1975. To get some sense of the scale of Wednesday’s atrocity, recall that 3,000 died on 9/11 in New York City.

The blood on the streets testifies to the naivete exhibited by the secular coalition of liberals and leftists, and the moral and political responsibility they must bear for this outcome. The crisis of the secular coalition has come sooner than expected. What will this coalition do now? Having joined the Muslim Brotherhood during the assault against the old regime, and then the security forces in the assault on MB, what now? Does ElBaradei’s resignation signal the emergence of a liberal-left alternative in Egypt? Will they be able to chart a different path, this time to seek a political rather than a military solution?

How many of the millions who returned to Tahrir Square on June 30, and even more of us who believed we were witnessing another milestone in the march of the democratic revolution in Egypt, are likely to judge the Morsi government less harshly in the coming days? Could it be that of the diverse coalition that toppled the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, as the best organized and most popular political tendency within it, had the greatest chance of holding the coalition together? And how much of what happened over the year that followed is explained by their ineptness and inexperience in governance, how much by their overreach and hegemonic aspirations and how much by the challenge they faced in the aftermath of a political revolution where they controlled the political organs of government, but were at every step checkmated by an old order entrenched in the judicial and security apparatuses and in the economy?

The debate on coup or revolution is now moot. The restoration of the Morsi government is no longer a possibility, if it ever was after June 30. In the weeks and months that follow, new coalitions will have to be forged and new paths charted. Once again, Egypt’s future may depend on how much moral courage and political foresight its inexperienced youthful movement and its hitherto spineless secular intelligentsia can muster to face past mistakes and chart a different course of action. 

The slaughter of pro-Morsi demonstrators should be seen for what it is, a barbaric bloodbath. General Al Sisi and the Egyptian senior military have now demonstrated to the world the true colours of their coup and Egypt’s illegitimate government. Egypt today has become Mubarak redux, the return of a military backed and led authoritarian government with all the brutality of the past. What will Egypt’s so-called liberal civilian government leaders say and do? [Former vice president Mohammed] El Baradei has tarnished his Nobel prize. The interim president, Adly Mansour [has tarnished] his current office just as he did as a Constitutional Court judge. 

What steps will Western governments take? Will they blandly refer to this tragedy as a “setback for democracy?” Or will the US and EU condemn and cut off any aid or promise of aid to the current government? Egyptians are challenged to now realise that the only way forward is to reinstitute the democratic process. Coups lead exactly to what Egypt has now returned to – an authoritarian state whose promises of inclusion, elections and security ring hollow. For indeed, who of those in the anti-Morsi non-violent opposition would now themselves dare to publicly condemn the military and take to the streets in non-violent demonstrations?

With the bloody attack on protest camps in Cairo, the announcement of a one-month state of emergency across the country, and the authority given to the army to “assist” the police in maintaining law and order, there can no longer be any question that Egypt is once again under the thumb of military authoritarianism. The democratic spring of Tahrir Square has been defeated – but the question “for how long” remains open. Egypt has undergone two huge changes since the overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, and both will play determinative roles in the current escalating crisis.

First, while there is substantial evidence that Mubarak-era loyalists are playing a major role in the anti-Morsi opposition and especially in the interim government that the military established, US support for and influence on the new power centre in Cairo remain uncertain. US economic support for the Egyptian military remains unchanged, but that $1.3bn in military aid is now dwarfed by multi-billion grants from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and beyond; following Obama’s partial embrace of Islamist-flavoured governments in Egypt as well as elsewhere in the region, Washington simply doesn’t have the same influence it once did.

Secondly, and most important, the Egyptian people have risen up to claim their rights as citizens, and have seen their power to change their country. However naive the democratic anti-Morsi protesters may have been about the possibility of overthrowing an elected leader simply by coming into the streets, as if the military would not ultimately play the decisive role, many of those millions of protesters are not likely to accept permanent military dictatorship unchallenged. Egypt today remains horrifically divided, with today’s bloodbath certain to make things worse. The Muslim Brotherhood, under attack by the generals, will almost certainly retrench some of its forces to operate underground, but its current appeal as defenders of Egyptian democracy and its “coalition for legitimacy” may simultaneously broaden their engagement. The memory of the unity of January 2011, and the power that unity created, is not likely to fade quickly.

More than any other time in recent history, media coverage of Egypt’s crackdown against the pro-Morsi sit-ins has been schizophrenic beyond reason. Egyptian state and private networks, now largely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, paint this as a largely sanitary and low-casualty operation against a predominantly violent movement. Pro-Brotherhood channels, such as Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, declare the operation an outright massacre against unarmed non-violent protesters and ignore deaths of police, widespread reprisal attacks against churches and police stations, and the Brotherhood’s now out-right jihadist discourse. Welcome to Egypt, no country for good journalism.

The bloodbath in Egypt’s security crackdown against opponents of the military coup is truly catastrophic. Enough independent observers maintain that the crowds of protesters, including women and children, were largely peaceful, and the use of violence by the security forces was disproportionate. Egypt faces a lasting conflict with itself. The army’s repression is a shattering blow against a fledgling, and brief, democratic experiment. Muslim Brotherhood activists and other opponents of the military-backed government may feel that they have little choice except to go underground.

In a vast country so deeply split, the authorities will find it very difficult to establish total control that the military seeks. Civilian political figures cooperating with the army face isolation from sections of Egyptian society. The turmoil will be destabilising, and a serious setback against hopes for democratic change in the region. The conflict will inflame the anti-American feeling, and pose a particular challenge for the United States in the Middle East. President Obama cannot disown the Egyptian military. But Washington’s close links with the ruling military establishment in Cairo will provide further fuel to the resentment against America.

This bloodbath is a natural conclusion to a series of events which began last November when then President Morsi “decreed” himself far-reaching powers in the midst of the struggle over drafting Egypt’s constitution. By breaking the still tenuous bonds linking Egyptians to its reforming state and allowing or even encouraging members of the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in attacks on opposition protesters at the Ittihadiya Palace – the lead up to which also infamously featured Brotherhood leader Khairat ash-Shater declaring 70 percent of protesters were Christians – Morsi went down a path that inevitably led to his own ouster and an even greater level of demonisation and now violence against the Brotherhood once it was clear his government could not fix any of the myriad problems the country faces.

It seems clear that what Egypt needed on February 12, 2011 as much as a transition to a civilian rather than SCAF-led government was a truth and reconciliation commission that would have forced the country to confront the depths of the violence, chauvinism, exploitation and authoritarianism that have long dominated its social, economic and political life. Instead of this, the emerging political system was forged out of the same basic dynamics that characterised the Mubarak era, with a formal but constantly challenged democratic veneer through elections and referenda. This lack of a reckoning with the past allowed the negative forces that shaped it to continue into the present, dooming the transition period. Whether it was women, Christians, Revolutionary Socialists, atheists, Shia, Palestinians, Syrians – and that’s only a partial list – one group after another has seen its basic dignity violated. This whole process culminated in the June 30 Tamarrod protests, which saw the fusing of a nation-wide anti-Brotherhood sentiment with brilliant if insidious plan to replace the military at the centre of national consciousness as the saviour of the country.