Egypt’s sit-in ordeal

Sonia Farid

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By definition, a “sit-in” involves little or no action. As is obvious from the name, the sit-in is about a group sitting in a specific place to deliver a specific message.

The main purpose of such a static form of protest is making it clear that a large number of people share the same demand and have chosen a peaceful way of claiming it so that instead of engaging in any form of action to have their goal achieved, they wait for the relevant bodies to carry out this mission.

Lack of physical action does not, however, strip a sit-in of its impact which is derived from the location in which it is held and is usually too strategic to be ignored by the authorities.

The non-violent nature of a sit-in often makes it unnecessary to end it by force or even to end it in the first place.

The only exception would be the remarkably negative impact of the rally on traffic, business, and/or the normal course of everyday life in/ near its location; more so if it occupies an area of government offices.

In fact, this kind of disruption is what distinguishes sit-ins and, in many cases, renders them influential and at the same time is what makes them a nuisance, for the state.

Decision time

The state is left with one of two options: responding to the demands or evicting the protestors.

Deals do not seem like the best idea at a time when the people are already accusing the state of failing to protect them through allowing the sit-ins to continue amid non-stop pleas for help.

Sonia Farid

A third option would be overlooking the entire issue in the hope that the protestors will gradually start to lose stamina and their numbers will start dwindling until the area eventually clears.

Despite the fact that the third option has no guaranteed result and could actually drag the matter a lot longer than calculated, it seems better than assaulting or arresting peaceful protestors if the state is determined not to meet any of the demands.

If the forceful ending of sit-ins is condemned because it involves armed, or at least violent, handling of unarmed and nonviolent citizens, the ethical components of the equation undergo a drastic change when those citizens are neither unarmed nor non-violent.

This is exactly the ordeal suffered by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Mursi. This is not only caused by the fact that the protestors involved are violent and have been engaging in several acts of violence against civilians, but also by the fact that their demands (one of which is the re-election of Mursi) are not going to be met.

With this scenario out, one of the other two needs to be chosen and it is at this point that the ordeal is bound to get more complicated.

The protesters are not just blocking a road or occupying a vital location. They are terrorizing the residents of the area in which they are staying, assaulting civilians, recruiting mercenary militants and establishing caches of heavy weapons.

Therefore the consequences of the continuation of the sit-in are much graver than preventing people from going to work, causing a traffic jam, or obstructing public services.

Suffice to say that the bodies of people killed by the protestors were discovered to have been buried in a park across the street from Cairo University, where one of the sit-ins is staged.

The damage incurred by the sit-ins drove a large number of Egyptians, especially those directly affected by virtue of the proximity of their homes or workplaces to sit-in locations, to call upon the army and the police to take a drastic action.

The consequences of such a step are bound to be more disastrous than those of the previous scenario since a forceful ending of the sit-in will definitely result in a large number of casualties from both sides.

Opting for this approach is also bound to embarrass the army, the party most likely to carry out the attack, particularly at a time when it is attempting to clean up its image following international condemnation of the death of scores of Muslim Brotherhood members in an attack on the Republican Guard facility.

Add to this the relentless warnings of human rights organizations over Egypt’s record and of political analysts over a potential civil war.

This option seems even more far-fetched with Western pressure to release the detained former president, visits of several American and European senior officials to detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders and with civil society’s attempts at promoting national reconciliation. It is impossible not to mention the presence of a considerable number of children in the sit-ins.

A potential solution

The only way out of this ordeal would be a partial response to the protestors’ demands so that while the Brotherhood will not return to power, it will not be completely excluded from the political scene.

In this case, influential Brotherhood leaders, including the deposed president, might receive amnesty and/or safe exit. Some of them might even be offered positions in the new government in return for ordering their supporters to end the sit-ins and for their recognition of the current government.

Presumably this would not include group members who have been involved in the destabilization of national security or who are detained pending trial or those who are responsible for the economic and political deterioration Egypt has experienced during the one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Some questions beg for an answer: Is there a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who can be totally absolved of the damage inflicted upon the country in the past year even if just by continuing to belong to a group that systematically focused on serving its own interests while overlooking those of the Egyptian people?

In other words, should one be guilty of specific actions or simply for belonging to a group that promotes ideologies which encourage such actions?

The answers to these questions would underline how impossible it is to make a distinction not to mention how impossible it is to strike any kind of deal that does not involve senior Brotherhood members. Almost all senior members were directly involved in destroying the country and its people, including the former president and who will undoubtedly be the main bargaining chip in any such deal.

Therefore, the ordeal is not by any means on its way to being resolved since the forceful ending of the sit-ins will be replaced with the peaceful acquittal of criminals both as unacceptable as the other.

Deals do not seem like the best idea at a time when the people are already accusing the state of failing to protect them through allowing the sit-ins to continue amid non-stop pleas for help.

Putting an end to the sit-ins seems inevitable in this case, yet it is the means of doing so that remains to be determined provided that the use of force becomes the last resort and that any peaceful approach addresses the average people who were lured into taking part in the sit-ins, this does not include the leaders who lured them. Activists and politicians must be assigned this mission, not the the military.

This can be accompanied by a close monitoring of each of the sit-ins to be followed by the arrest of individuals proven to break the law whether through the terrorization of innocents, the illegal possession of weapons, or the use of children as human shields. This includes leaders proven to engage in hate speech, to incite violence and by the deportation of foreigners proven to take part in the sit-ins.

Only if all of these tactics fail will the intervention of the army or the security apparatus become necessary.

Another Tiananmen Square is the last thing Egypt needs even if the protestors are not as peaceful and their cause not as legitimate.


Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at soniafarid@gmail.com

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