Egypt at a bleak crossroads

Omar Ashour
Omar Ashour
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The bloody crackdown on the sit-in camps in support of deposed President Mohammad Mursi in Egypt’s Rabaa al-Adawiya and Ennahda squares on Wednesday left more than 600 Egyptians dead and more than 2,000 injured, according to the Health Ministry.

While the estimate of the makeshift hospital in Cairo’s Rabaa square was a lot worse, at around 2,000 fatalities, the figure still does not account for fatalities elsewhere in the bloodied country.

To many, the profiles of the murdered protestors reflect a less publicized reality. The sit-ins included more than just Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members, and even more than just the supporters of the pro-Mursi coalition (the National Coalition for the Support of Legitimacy).

The victims of the crackdown included young activists, such as Abdullah Sultan an activist who organized petitions and distributed anti-Mursi posters on June 30, celebrated his ouster on July 3, and then joined the Rabaa sit-in to protest the Presidential Guard massacre of July 8, 2013.

Leftist groups, like April 6, published obituaries of affiliates and supporters killed during the crackdown. And so, a wider-circle of what can be called an “anti-coup” movement extends beyond the MB and the pro-Mursi coalition. This is not surprising.

Insurgencies survive on a perceived just cause, a sympathetic population, a friendly geography and arms.

Omar Ashour

The pattern shown since January 2011 is that the blood spilled by the security forces brings in mobilization. Among the post-revolution events, this pattern was seen on the “Day of Rage” on 28 January 2011, Mohammed Mahmoud protests in November 2011, and now the Presidential Guard and Nasr Road protests in July 2013.

This brings us to the potential scenarios in a post-Rabaa environment. In general, when an elected institution gets removed by a group of generals, the outcome is unfavourable to democracy. There are a few exceptions to that pattern, such as the Turkey 1997 “post-modern” coup, which had some conditions: bloodless and marked by limited repression and quick inclusion of the ousted parties. This has not been the case in Egypt, with high protester death tolls.

An Egypt of 1954?

Egypt is now at a crossroads of different scenarios. One of them is regression to an Egypt of 1954. Back then, one part of the country wanted a parliamentary democracy and another part wanted a strong, unchecked charismatic patron/leader.

Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser crushed the first model and delivered on the second. MB leaders were executed, thousands of their members were arrested, leftist activists were hanged, and liberal figures were imprisoned and intimidated. But on the side of Nasser there were also Islamist, liberal and leftist figures cheering for the repression.

Some were even appointed in ministerial positions, such as Ahmed Hassan al-Baquri, the de facto leader of the MB between 1949 and 1951. Then he became Nasser’s Minister of Religious Endowment, giving the necessary fatwas (religious edicts), to legitimate the leader’s actions.

The 1954 episode cost Egypt its basic freedoms and the credibility of its democratic institutions for six decades. It did create an “officer’s republic,” in which armed institutions are placed well above any other state institution, even above the constitution. That “officer’s republic” aggressively fought to preserve its status, threatened after January 2011. In 2013, it may succeed.

The Algeria scenario

There is also the possibility of an Algeria-like scenario. It has the same end as the above-mentioned scenario but the path to that end is different. In January 1992, a group of generals deposed a reformist President and cancelled the result of Algeria’s first free and fair parliamentary elections. A few months later the country descended into a full-scale civil war. That scenario cannot be dismissed in Egypt. But the strategic choices of the anti-coup leaders, the balance of (brutal) power, the geography of the country, and its experience in the 1990s make that scenario less probable.

Most of the anti-coup movement leaders, including the MB, understand their sources of power. Non-violence is at the core of it. They know that they can win in elections and street mobilization. But violence is the army’s domain and they cannot win by it.

Strategic thinking and command-and-control structures are never clear and intact in chaotic crises. Armed confrontations on the fringes and the border areas of countries may well continue.

Insurgencies survive on a perceived just cause, a sympathetic population, a friendly geography and arms. Sinai, Upper and Northwest Egypt got some of that. Matrouh governorate in the Northwest voted for President Mursi with above 80% and North Sinai in the Northeast voted for him with above 60%. The first borders Libya and the second borders Gaza and Israel. Additionally, acquiring arms is a part of a male culture in the aforementioned governorates and the repression of the security forces throughout the Mubarak-era has left many unsettled scores with police generals.

An Algerian scenario in Egypt will be disastrous for the country. Both armed groups and military-security apparatuses are likely to use a long list of terror tactics and commit gross violations of human rights.

Egypt had so far 3 major massacres. Algeria had 642. Agent-provocateur and false-flag tactics are also quite common in civil wars and violently chaotic environment. Chile in 1973, Argentina in 1976 and Algeria in 1992 can testify to that. “Who killed whom and why?” will be unanswered questions for years. Ask Algerians.

Examples from Spain and Syria

A third scenario would similar to Spain in 1936 or Syria in 2011. In Spain, part of the army remained loyal to the democratically elected republican government, despite a coup staged by group of generals against it (and despite popular support from segments of the Spanish society for the coup-plotters). This created a balance of (hard) power on the ground, but hardly a compromise.

In Syria, the continuation of mass-murdering peaceful protestors led to defections from the army, a pattern that isn’t uncommon if protests remained largely peaceful and the ruling regime remained brutally aggressive. That scenario in Egypt can feature army defections (much less likely in the police force, which has long-standing vendettas with both Islamist and non-Islamist revolutionaries).

This scenario can also feature a coup-on-a-coup: soft or hard removal of the current military leadership or a part of it, followed by an attempt to “re-correct” the path. “Re-correction” of course can go in any direction: a compromise or more repression.

Despite the current levels of bloodshed, a compromise will probably be reached in the very end. The questions are “how much time it will take” “how many Egyptians will be killed in the process” and “how ‘fair’ is it going to be?”

European Union envoy Bernardino Leon stated that the MB accepted a political compromise formulated by the United States and EU. But clearly the “hawks” in the July 3 political-military coalition are stronger than the relative “doves.” The resignation of Mohammed ElBaradei stresses that fact, and not just between the lines.

Ignoring reality

The continuation of domestic pressures in the form of marches and sit-ins followed by deadly crackdowns by the generals can cause further rifts. But one unnamed official source told Reuters that the generals have “a remarkable ability to ignore reality." So this does not mean that the “hawks” won’t continue eradication-based policies.

Whereas the scenarios are uncertain, what is certain is that Egypt is quite far from the slogans of its revolutions: “freedom, dignity, bread, and social justice.” What is almost certain is that the generals committing such levels of repression don’t usually escape unscathed. Musharraf of Pakistan is in jail today. The democratically elected prime minister he ousted is in power.

Turkey 1980 coup leader Kenan Evren and the Argentinean junta of the “dirty war” met similar fates. To many, this week’s whirlwind in Egypt suggest that those ends could be repeated in Egypt.


Dr. Omar Ashour is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics and Security Studies at the University of Exeter. He is a non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and From Good Cop to Bad Cop: The Challenge of Security Sector Reform in Egypt.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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