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Dead-end strategies in Egypt

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Months since the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi, Egypt remains in turmoil, and has dominated the news headlines for much of that time. Despite this, little has actually changed.

Opposing sides are doggedly maintaining their strategies, in the misplaced belief that they are gaining the upper hand. What they do not seem to realize is that they are pursuing dead-end policies that need to change, not just for their own self-interests, but for the good of the entire country.

Muslim Brotherhood

That the Muslim Brotherhood - from which Mursi hails - and its allies have continued to hold nationwide rallies since his ouster has confounded the expectations of many. However, they have not been able to attract a critical mass sufficient to bring down the interim government.

Mursi’s supporters are paying dearly for their defiance, a price they cannot pay in perpetuity.

Sharif Nashashibi

In addition, street protests cannot go on indefinitely. People will eventually tire if they see that demonstrations are not making a discernible difference, and so far they are not. In fact, their numbers are decreasing.

This is not necessarily due to dwindling support for the movements involved, and not just because of fatigue among protesters. Security forces have arrested many opposition leaders and spokespeople, making it increasingly difficult to organize and publicize demonstrations.

Furthermore, the crackdown has been deadly and unrelenting. Thousands have been killed, wounded or detained by security forces with a history of human rights abuses. Mursi’s supporters are paying dearly for their defiance, a price they cannot pay in perpetuity.

The Brotherhood and its allies cannot, indeed should not, rely on the authorities’ brutality to galvanize protesters and garner media attention. This would be deeply cynical, cheapening the lives of protesters and turning them into mere pawns in a chess game. That is not a viable strategy, and would backfire in the long term. Media coverage has already waned considerably, and no one should hope for another massacre to reverse that.

It was inevitable, albeit unfortunate, that media coverage would decline as time went on. Anything that persists long enough eventually ceases to remain newsworthy, and Egypt’s crisis shows no signs of resolution anytime soon.

In addition, the media tends to cover one flashpoint at a time before moving on - this is particularly true in light of decreasing budgets for foreign news. As such, Mursi’s supporters cannot count on the media to keep their cause in the spotlight - at some point not far away, it might fall off the radar completely. Of course, the clampdown against news organizations in Egypt that do not follow the official line is contributing considerably to the attention deficit.

The Brotherhood needs to accept three central realities: that Mursi’s presidency caused widespread alienation, public discontent and national division; that his return to power is thus wishful thinking; and that the movement risks irrelevancy if it continuously refuses to engage with the new authorities or return to the political process, as difficult as this may be to stomach.

Other parties with whom the Brotherhood has had common cause are accepting the need for cautious pragmatism. There also seems to be growing internal divisions between those remaining steadfast, and those trying to find a way out of the impasse not just for the good of their country, but to avoid being left out in the cold.

If these divisions persist, they could lead to the splintering of the Brotherhood. This may already be happening, given the marked rise in violence and militancy since Mursi’s overthrow. While the opposition’s feelings of futility about embracing politics again is understandable, there is no viable alternative.

Those resorting to arms must realize that they cannot successfully take on a much more powerful army that enjoys considerable public support for its zero-tolerance approach, as well as huge economic, political and military aid from key foreign backers. Causing instability for the sake of it will not win any sympathy - on the contrary.

The authorities

Statements and actions by the authorities reflect a sense of confidence that they are prevailing over their opponents. In reality, however, they are living on borrowed time, for their strategies are also unsustainable in the long run.

The iron fist against dissent has certainly hampered the ability to express it, but that does not mean grievances will magically vanish. The crackdown will either drive the opposition underground, add to its ranks, or galvanize Egypt’s nascent ‘third camp’ - those who are neither pro-Mursi nor pro-military - to speak out against state repression. All three scenarios pose a serious and direct challenge to the authorities.

The third camp is already growing and becoming more vocal, albeit slowly given the highly polarized state of affairs. It will continue to do so as long as the crisis continues. The most high-profile figure so far in this regard is Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, who resigned as interim vice president in August in protest at the violent dispersal of sit-ins that left at least several hundred civilians dead.

He quickly went from revolutionary poster boy to national traitor. “This is a reflection of the atmosphere in Egypt right now. You can’t take your independent stand, or otherwise you’ll be considered breaching national trust,” said Khaled Dawoud, a former spokesman of the National Salvation Front, which was instrumental in bringing down Mursi, and which was co-founded by ElBaradei.

If the status quo continues or worsens, more and more people will speak out, not out of sympathy with Mursi or his supporters, but out of recognition that their country is heading down a dark path.
The interim government’s authoritarianism and heavy-handedness are alienating important elements of the Islamist camp that were willing to work with it. For example, al-Nour - which won the second-largest number of seats after the Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections - suspended its cooperation with the authorities due to the killing of protesters.

Furthermore, the Cairo-based al-Azhar - which supported Mursi’s overthrow, and is the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam - has distanced itself from the violent methods employed in the crackdown.

The Brotherhood’s activities have been outlawed, contradicting the interim government’s promised path to democracy and inclusivity. Banning the movement has not worked in the past, and will not do so now. The authorities must accept that the Brotherhood, like it or not, represents a large segment of Egyptian society, whose disenfranchisement will only make things worse by dooming any genuine attempt at vital national reconciliation.

There must also be a recognition that the crackdown has been unnecessarily heavy-handed, as documented by respected international and local human rights organizations. This has no doubt contributed to the stark rise in violence and militancy since Mursi’s overthrow, as people feel that they have no other outlet for their discontent.

Remember that one of the central reasons given for his ouster was to avoid exactly the kind of nationwide bloodshed that is now taking place. While the security forces currently have popular support for their tactics, they cannot kill protesters and curb basic freedoms indefinitely without an inevitable backlash from a public fed up of decades of dictatorship.

The authorities must keep in mind that not long ago, the full spectrum of Egyptian society was protesting the army’s refusal to relinquish power to civilian government after the overthrow of Mursi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak, as the military had promised to do.

As the country’s recently renewed state of emergency is extended, and as Egyptians see further indications of authoritarianism that will affect them all, they will not continue to follow blindly.

As such, the promise to restore genuinely democratic and independent civilian rule must be kept, as quickly as possible, and as inclusively as possible. Given the country’s history of totalitarianism, and the widely held view that Mursi’s year in office was disastrous, public patience is understandably in short supply.

Foreign relations

Meanwhile, international concern at events in Egypt has been rising steadily. Mursi’s overthrow has sharply split regional opinion. The authorities' crackdown has prompted the European Union - a major source of aid, loans, business and tourists for Egypt - to “urgently review” its relations with Cairo, and to suspend sales of any arms that could be used for repression.

“The calls for democracy and fundamental freedoms from the Egyptian population cannot be disregarded, much less washed away in blood,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy.

Furthermore, the United States has reduced its aid to Cairo, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemning “a series of actions the Egyptian government has taken that doesn’t reflect their commitment to an inclusive political process, to respect for basic human rights like the right to protest peacefully. Continued violations of basic human rights don’t make the transfer of... aid more likely.”

Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have vowed to offset any aid reduction. However, it would be unwise for Cairo to put all its eggs in one basket by relying on this and alienating the EU and the world's only superpower - with which it has had traditionally good relations - as well as other major international players.

After all, they are vital to Egypt in ways other than aid that Gulf states will not be able to adequately replace. In addition, the United States is highly influential within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, from which Egypt is seeking billions of dollars in much-needed loans.

Economic stagnation and decline were fundamental reasons behind the Arab Spring, including the overthrow of Mubarak and Mursi. Egypt’s current authorities should not think that people will react any differently if the economy continues to struggle under their watch.

Political affiliations are secondary when people cannot find jobs, put food on the table and a roof over their heads, or clothe and educate their children. The Brotherhood found that out the hard way - it remains to be seen whether those now in power will learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. As things stand, it is hard to be optimistic.

This article was first published in 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.