Last week, Tunisia’s president suggested Egypt’s interim authorities release Mohammad Mursi, the ousted Egyptian president, as well as all political detainees. In response, the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador from Tunis, and a furore began within Egypt over the Tunisian position.
That sort of reaction is not isolated. Over the past few weeks, efforts in Europe and North America have intensified by Egypt’s new interim authorities to promote its narrative over what has happened in Egypt since July 3rd. This is not your regular, run-of-the-mill public diplomacy outreach – it is a reaction to what the interim authorities feel is the lack of fairness of the international community vis-à-vis Egypt. These efforts are not simply limited to officials within the foreign ministry – but to supporters of the interim government who are part of the broader effort.
The problem is – they have a pretty hard case to sell. In all likelihood, the military ouster of Mohammed Mursi was supported and backed by the majority of the Egyptian population – but the ouster itself could not be described as the success of a democratic experiment. One might have been able to make the argument that the failure of that experiment had as much to do with Mursi’s conduct during the year he was in power, as it did with the popularly supported military intervention that removed him – but making the argument that the coup was in itself an act that deepened a democratic process is difficult to sustain.
‘Necessary’ military intervention
Nevertheless, the Egyptian interim government’s public diplomacy efforts might have been able to argue that while the military intervention had been regrettable, it had been necessary in order to save the country from widespread violence, as well as the complete destruction of the democratic experiment. That argument became increasingly difficult to make, however. Within a few days, there was violence – dozens of Mursi supporters were killed by security forces outside the Republican Guards’ club on the 8th of July, less than a week after Mursi’s ouster. While there might have been a minority who had small weaponry, most of those killed were definitely unarmed and at best were killed in reckless crossfire, which only means a failure of the state to protect them – a duty it has for every citizen.
In general terms, the Egyptian state appears to the international community as an unconfident victor over the Muslim Brotherhood, and is now resorting to authoritarianism and repression to prevail.H.A. Hellyer
A month later, the dispersal of the sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda occurs – and while there is a great of evidence to suggest that crimes were taking place within those pro-Mursi sit-ins, it is still regarded, as Human Rights Watch would describe it, as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” Those who might have been able to accept the military’s intervention as legitimate in July as a way to avert violence, find that argument tremendously weakened in particular as a result of the forced dispersal of Rabaa.
The final aspect that will make any public diplomacy rather difficult for the interim authorities is the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as a group as well as its members. Defenders of the government’s position in this regard argue that those who have been arrested are being prosecuted on sound charges; but to the outside world, when one array of charges range from insulting the judiciary to spreading false information, it is progressively more difficult for the Egyptian authorities to convince their international partners that the Egyptian state is not clamping down on dissent. To the international community, the implication is clear: that the Egyptian authorities are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win parliamentary elections again if they were to run, so it must be crippled before the elections can take place.
In general terms, the Egyptian state appears to the international community as an unconfident victor over the Muslim Brotherhood, and is now resorting to authoritarianism and repression to prevail. At the same time, the state’s representatives continues to insist that they want democracy for Egypt, and this current road-map will lead it there.
Concrete actions to show confidence?
Many Egyptians claim that they do not care about international public opinion – but that is difficult to square with the tremendous outreach that is taking place. Time, and time again, however, those efforts come up against these same sorts of points around violence, repression and inclusion. Perhaps the Egyptian state might give them a way to answer those queries more effectively – by concrete actions that show its confidence, as well as a commitment to democracy.
The authorities ought to ask themselves this question – if Mursi had called for early presidential elections, responding to the will of the majority of Egyptians, how would Egypt look like right now? It would be a country where the Muslim Brotherhood would probably be humiliated at the ballot box (based on existing polls); those who had committed serious crimes would be brought up on charges; but, generally, the Muslim Brotherhood would be free to operate. It is in the interests of the Egyptian authorities to not only halt any crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood – but to publicly encourage it to engage in a new democratic process. They have little to worry about from such an engagement – and everything to gain, both in terms of reducing polarisation domestically, and gaining support internationally.
Finally, the diplomatic efforts of the Egyptian authorities will count for naught in terms of promoting their narrative, without addressing, seriously, the violence that took place at the hands of the state. An independent enquiry, with international participation and involvement, needs to be established for the Republican Guard killings, the forced dispersal of the sit-ins, and any other killing of unarmed civilians where the state was involved. In so doing, the Egyptian state would be showing its confidence in its narrative and the veracity of its efforts to hold itself to account.
Or, the Egyptian state can continue along the track it is on at the moment – and the reputation of the Egyptian state will diminish in the international community further. In all likelihood, few, if any, state will cut relations – but the international relations of the Egyptian state will still suffer, and it’s not clear if the price of that is worth it, when an alternative route is actually not that hard.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.