Egypt back to square one in existential face-off

Abdullah Kamal

Published: Updated:

No other Egyptian ruler than President Mohammed Mursi has faced such pre-scheduled mass protests. In the past, such protests would erupt suddenly or be announced just days before they took place as was the case with the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The date of the anti-Mursi protests, set for June 30, was made public two months ago. The element of anticipation in the forthcoming protests, which push for Mursi to step down, is a major tool of pressure on all sides.

While the protests nourish the hopes of the majority anti-Mursi military, fears are growing among the Islamist president’s backers in the army. According to opinion polls, the scene appears as though entire Egypt has put bets on June 30, which marks Mursi’s first anniversary in office. One side’s win on that day will mean a total loss for the other.

Mursi’s removal

Against a backdrop of mutual defiance among the rivals, prevalent anticipation boosts pugnacity, fuelled by on-going barbs from all those involved in the face-off, including the state institutions that are currently engaged in re-formulating their roles.

Further stoking tensions is a common belief that the losers, be they the president, his backers or opponents, would end up in jail. This conviction sharply pushes the face-off to an existential dispute: “Either them or us”.

Still, there is a possibility, albeit slim, that Mursi’s opponents, who seek his ouster and early presidential elections, may score a relative victory with him still staying in power. This likelihood, however, would thrust Egypt into a stage of further instability leading to wider protests pushing for Mursi’s removal.

With this in mind, the June 30 is unlikely to end peacefully although organizers of rallies for that day confirm that their demonstrations will be peaceful. Ominously, behaviour of Mursi’s backers in the past few days has been hostile towards opponents.

The current dispute is marred by a lack of imagination and options, mainly on the part of Mursi’s supporters. Significantly, this camp has gone to the extremes ahead of June 30. They have brandished rhetoric of “bloodshed” and “civil war” in an apparent bid to terrorize those willing to take part in the protests against Mursi.

As things are standing, the following conclusions can be made:

1- Jumping to the furthest point has left no room for possible political manoeuvres. This means that Mursi’s backers have put his back, theirs and those of rivals against the wall;

2- When Mursi called this week for “collective reconciliation” this week to build a national unity in a row with Ethiopia over the Nile, it was too late for such a call as his supporters had already blocked the way with their pre-June 30 bellicose rhetoric;

3- There is such a real change in Egyptians’ public mood that one can say threats of bloodshed and violence can no longer scare off the people. The contrary holds true especially amid growing expectations that the June 30 protests would draw massive people.

Secular vs. Islamic

That the conflict is back to square one is not a new fact. It originated in late January 2011 when the Mubarak regime and the then outlawed Muslim Brotherhood were locked in a showdown. In effect, that situation was one reason for the massive 18-day protests, which eventually forced Mubarak to step down on February 11, 2011.

Although politicians in post-revolution Egypt initially declared support for co-existence and democratic transition, the country has waded deeper into political polarization, which started with presidential elections. As time went on, Egyptian society became divided into two camps: one calling for a secular Egypt; the other wants an Islamic theology.

On the way, foes of the Mubarak regime found a common ground with the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies in espousing the idea of “isolating” figures from the Mubarak era.

When Mursi took office, signs of tightening the Brotherhood’s hold on power started to appear, resulting in political exclusion of others. Paradoxically, this “exclusion” approach was one of the key reasons bringing together Mubarak loyalists and foes, and at the same time alienated a group of the hardline Salafists, who had previously sided with the Brotherhood.

This stark state of affairs is not the only reason why the June 30 scene is unlikely to be normal. There are two other major factors:

Each of the sides involved in the conflict is too incompetent to pull off an immediate, firm victory;

The arena this time has no “friends” at home or overseas, who will be ready to help any of the sides involved. Those “friends” have already staked out their positions, leaving no room for possible involvement.

Accordingly, the decisive factor will be the grassroots mobilization that will tip the balance in favour of one of the rival sides in this heated conflict. Thus, the circle has come full circle, returning to the people’s power.

Rivals are vying over the people—but in two different ways. One the one hand, Mursi’s opponents seek to draw the biggest possible numbers of the people to their side for the longest possible period. On the other, the president’s backers are at pains to intimidate the people to shun the planned protests.

Within this context, a set of familiar incentives--related to society’s identity and the secular-religious conflict-- interplay. Another factor is linked to the performance of the governing Brotherhood who has shown an unenviable gift for making adversaries.

Then comes the crucial stage when the “home friend”, represented in the army, and the “overseas friend”, represented in the U.S., reaches the conclusion that their interference would not affect the outcome already determined in the face-off.

Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo. He is working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)

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