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Is history repeating itself in Egypt?

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

“Two Egypts now exist,” says BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, referring to the seemingly intractable divisions between supporters and opponents of deposed President Mohammad Mursi.

In my opinion, there are three Egypts, the third comprising those who think Mursi’s time in office was a disaster, but are nonetheless deeply concerned at developments since his overthrow. However, such is the level of polarization that they are being swiftly and angrily pigeon-holed as his sympathizers.

The voices of this ‘third camp’ are being drowned out by the shouting match between the other two. However, its numbers will continue to grow if the crisis in Egypt continues or worsens, and as the initial euphoria gives way to disillusionment.

Mursi’s responsibility

Despite Mursi’s claims that there were forces and interests conspiring against him from the start, he was largely responsible for the creation of the mass movement against him. A democratically elected president behaved with increasing authoritarianism.

He promised to heal national divisions while exacerbating them, pledged inclusivity while practising systematic alienation, offered dialogue while acting unilaterally, claimed to serve the national interest while pursuing that of his Muslim Brotherhood, and presided over the continued deterioration of the economy.

The army has promised a speedy return to civilian rule, but it promised this after Mubarak’s downfall while clinging on as long as it could.

Sharif Nashashibi

Those who state that finishing his full term was his legitimate and democratic right are interpreting both concepts too narrowly. Dissent against him - from the opposition as well as his own government - had snowballed to the extent that his legitimacy had been severely diminished, if not completely lost.

Furthermore, a poll conducted towards the end of his presidency by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research revealed that 54 percent of Egyptians supported early elections. They comprised a cross-section of society - not just Mursi’s opponents, but also the country’s grand mufti and al-Nour (the largest Salafist movement, and the second-largest party in parliament). This invalidates the characterization of divisions as between Islamists and conservatives on one hand, and secular liberals on the other.

As such - and in addition to a petition for early elections signed by millions more Egyptians than those who voted for Mursi - his repeated rejection of this majority wish was itself undemocratic, and thus against the national interest.
He could have even served his own interests and that of his party, and avoided his overthrow, by calling early elections. If Mursi was so confident of his popularity, what better way to bolster his legitimacy than emerging victorious again? The answer is obvious: in times of crisis, leaders never accept early elections if they think they may lose.

The army’s role

It is a reflection of the level of animosity his presidency aroused that many, if not most, of his opponents have celebrated his ouster without questioning at all the way in which it was carried out or its repercussions. One of the most worrying aspects is the pivotal role played by the military, which has an “abysmal record on human rights,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The army, whose raison d'etre is national security, could not stand by while Mursi’s opponents and supporters geared up for a showdown. However, rather than maintain neutrality, it has blatantly taken sides.

It had given “everyone” 48 hours to resolve the crisis - an impossible ultimatum. And by calling for “the people’s demands to be met,” and describing the mass protests against Mursi as “glorious,” by “everyone” the army meant the president specifically. Hours after the ultimatum, its helicopters flew over his opponents in Tahrir Square - trailing large Egyptian flags and garnering huge applause - but did not do so over pro-Mursi crowds.

These were obvious signals that the military was planning to move against him, meaning that his opponents had no incentive for dialogue - on the contrary. The army’s actions since the overthrow have invalidated its stated intention to oversee “a road map for the future” with the “participation of all patriotic and sincere parties and movements.”

Political exclusion

The mass arrests, assaults, killings, media closures, asset freezes and travel bans against the Brotherhood and its supporters resemble a targeted campaign that has achieved exactly the opposite of the inclusive political process that was promised. At the time of writing, Mursi and other senior Brotherhood figures are still under arrest without charge or trial, their whereabouts unknown, and unable to speak with their families or lawyers.

“These violations of basic political rights will mean the Muslim Brotherhood and others will be shut out of political life,” said Human Rights Watch. This “will have the worst possible effect on Egypt’s political future.” No surprise, then, that the party refuses to recognize or work with the “usurper” government.

Egypt’s interim cabinet contains no representatives from any Islamist parties, despite pledges of inclusivity. Although the interim president’s spokesman said the Brotherhood would be offered posts, the party says this was not the case, and would not have accepted them anyway from an “illegitimate” cabinet.

Violence

“The national security of the state is in severe danger,” the army said prior to Mursi’s overthrow. However, its crackdown since has only increased that danger, leading to the Brotherhood calling for a national “uprising,” and to al-Nour suspending its cooperation with the new authorities.

Amnesty has accused the military and police of “grossly disproportionate force” against Mursi supporters, saying this was “a recipe for disaster” that “could spiral into a new wave of human rights abuses.”

Such repression, as well as a sense among Islamists that political participation has been shown to be futile, have led to ongoing, large-scale protests and acts of violence by Mursi sympathizers, including militant attacks against security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, making the already tenuous security situation there much more unstable.

It will now be extremely difficult to convince the Brotherhood and other Islamists in Egypt - as well as other countries in the region - to partake in the democratic process. This will lead to long-term marginalization, resentment, and potential unrest.

There is speculation that the Brotherhood might splinter into more radical elements. Some are even raising the spectre of Algeria’s vicious civil war during the 1990s, following the cancellation of elections that Islamists were expected to win.

It is highly unlikely that the United States will suspend its substantial annual military aid to Egypt, despite such calls by American politicians, since human rights have always taken a distant back seat in Washington’s alliance with Cairo.
Furthermore, army and police violations are at best unchallenged, and at worst openly encouraged, by the Brotherhood’s opponents. As long as this is the case, there is no reason to believe that such abuses will end anytime soon.

Collective amnesia

It is truly ironic that the army’s present admirers were among its most ardent critics when it was trying to maintain its rule over Egypt after the fall of Mursi’s predecessor, the widely despised Hosni Mubarak, who was spawned and propped up by the military. Some of them sound like de facto army spokespeople today. We are witnessing either collective amnesia, opportunism or naivete, or all three.

During the rule of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces following Mubarak’s toppling, military courts tried more than 12,000 civilians in less than one and a half years, more than the number of civilians tried by military courts in the 30 previous years of his dictatorship. The current head of the Republican Guard led a deadly crackdown on protesters in front of the cabinet building in Dec. 2011.

“The SCAF repeatedly used excessive force to break up demonstrations and, despite official recognition of the need to rebuild public confidence in the police, initiated no security sector reform. There was no comprehensive investigation into systematic acts of torture and ill-treatment practiced by Egyptian security forces under Mubarak or since,” said HRW. The police “are blamed, rightly, for many of the deaths of peaceful protesters during the January 2011 uprising,” added HRW deputy program director Tom Porteous.

These institutions, which faced protests from the whole spectrum of an Egyptian population fed up of their brutality and interference in politics, are now being publicly cheered on for doing the same thing. History is repeating itself, but this may quickly backfire.

The army has promised a speedy return to civilian rule, but it promised this after Mubarak’s downfall while clinging on as long as it could. It may have learnt its lesson and realized that the Egyptian people will not stand for this again. On the other hand, it may be banking on its current popularity, and the public’s convenient amnesia, by trying to cement its influence in more covert ways, such as a pliant, grateful civilian government.

In the interim cabinet, army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi - who announced Mursi’s overthrow - retains the post of defence minister, but is now also deputy prime minister. Furthermore, the “so-called road map, in the form of a ‘constitutional declaration’ by the military-appointed president... includes negligible protections for basic rights,” and “grants the military autonomy outside the president’s control,” wrote David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief and Middle East correspondent for the New York Times.

As such, and for other reasons as well, the declaration has been criticized by Egyptian parties and movements across the board, even by those who backed Mursi’s overthrow. Furthermore, it is almost certain that when elections take place, they will be boycotted by the Brotherhood and possibly other Islamist groups. This would result in the maintenance of a status quo that is untenable in the long run.

The army is back on centre stage and effectively above the law, human rights abuses are continuing unchecked, and the Brotherhood is the target of an organized witch-hunt. Has that much changed since Mubarak?

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Middle East Magazine.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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