What Next, Egypt?

08.14.13

Thy Hand, Great Anarch!

The heart bleeds. The mind reels. Egypt has sunk into a state of profound chaos. The prevailing fear across the country is that—if not tonight or tomorrow then soon enough—the worst may be yet to come. Right now, at least, the atmosphere recalls that grim passage from Alexander Pope: “Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; And universal Darkness buries All.”

After several weeks of standoff and multiple warnings, Egyptian security forces swept in to break up two Muslim Brotherhood protest encampments. Death toll estimates begin with at least 150 protesters, including women and children. There seems little doubt the protesters themselves were also armed and the security forces, too, sustained casualties. The details are unclear, but the images, on both sides, are gruesome and highly disturbing. Street battles between rival gangs of toughs are now reportedly raging in cities around the country.

Meanwhile, reports are circulating of numerous churches being attacked throughout the country. Supporters of ousted former president Mohammad Morsi, particularly among the Muslim Brotherhood, have a narrative about the usurpation of "legitimacy" by an unlawful "military coup." But more insidious is the notion that the whole thing was orchestrated by a cabal led by Coptic Christians, particularly the noted businessman Naguib Sawiris. There has been a decidedly nasty sectarian streak from the outset in Brotherhood rhetoric about the "conspiracy." And it’s taken a decidedly ugly and violent turn in “revenge.”

And, of course, both sides blame the United States. As I have argued elsewhere, finding the U.S. at fault for anything bad that happens in the Middle East is now the default position in almost all contemporary Arab political discourse.

Until now, the battle of narratives was largely being won by the authorities, at least by default. But given the carnage and anarchy of today's developments, that may shift considerably and quickly. There is always the possibility that a considerable majority of Egyptians may continue to see the Brotherhood as primarily at fault. The pro-government narrative, which has so far prevailed, is that the Brotherhood is only really comfortable in opposition and sought to provoke and sustain violence, both by and against itself, in order to sow chaos and undermine the new government.

If most Egyptians continue to give credence to this account, it will be possible for the government to avoid a political disaster. But it seems more plausible that, at the very least, a huge amount of damage has already been done. The killing of a Sky TV cameraman, and possibly other journalists as well, during the crackdown will further harm the government's image. Perhaps even more damaging was the death of the 17-year-old daughter of a leading Brotherhood figure, Mohamed el-Beltagi.

Politically, the honeymoon for the new government of President Adli Mansour, such as it ever was, is over. The massive coalition that stood behind General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi when he announced the ouster of Morsi had already begun to crack weeks ago. The Salafist Al-Noor party, which mainly joined the pro-ouster movement in order to try to poach from the Muslim Brotherhood constituency, has already largely broken with its very tenuous and erstwhile coalition partners.

Today the new vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, de facto leader of the large National Salvation Front non-Islamist coalition, resigned in protest of the violence. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that deputy prime ministers Ziad Bahaa El-Din and Hossam Eissa also either have or may be preparing to resign. Another original supporter of the military-led ouster of Morsi, Al-Azhar's grand imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb, implicitly criticized the government and insisted that the mainstream Islamic institution would refuse to be dragged into political arguments. The broad coalition behind the overthrow of the Morsi government lies in tatters.

Worst of all for the new government, it has been forced to declare a state of emergency, under terms first enacted in 1958! This is the hallmark of traditional Arab dictatorships of every variety. For optics in the post-dictatorship Arab world, especially Egypt, states of emergency are not only hated and feared by the public: for the authorities they are a measure of desperation and, to some extent, political defeat. It's something they have to be pushed to do, and that can only hurt them.

The violence has spread throughout the country, with Morsi supporters instigating a good deal of it, which gives the government a plausible context for explaining the emergency declaration. But it is much harder now for Egyptians to avoid feeling that the government has gone too far, no matter the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood or the cynicism of its policies. In the past few weeks, the Brotherhood gained a little bit of sympathy but almost nothing in terms of credibility. That may still be the case. The government lost a good deal of sympathy, but little in terms of authority. Egyptians were still looking to it to restore order, and to decisively end the Brotherhood protest movement.

But there's no question this kind of brutality was not what they had in mind. It's virtually inevitable that the new government has lost some degree of both credibility and authority with the public, though how much remains to be seen. The road back to what passes for normalcy in Egypt will be much longer and harder after today's debacle than it already seemed. It would appear that, as many feared, there were those in the anti-Morsi camp that were seriously considering an all-out effort to crush or severely damage the Brotherhood once and for all.

This will not work. The Brotherhood exists and it is not going away. And, today, by playing into its hands and making it appear to not only it supporters, but many others, as “martyrs” and “victims,” the authorities have handed it an undeserved political victory.

Eventually the Brotherhood will have to be reincorporated into the political process, and legalized and normalized. But it is much harder to imagine how and when that can happen given the current circumstances. Brotherhood leaders and cadres continue to talk, as they always have, and including towards the end of the Morsi presidency and in his last two speeches, mainly in terms "blood," "death," and "martyrdom," as well as a new theme that has emerged since his ouster: "civil war." Needless to say all of that rhetoric has increased greatly today.

The government is going to have to act quickly to try to bring those forces that have strayed from its founding coalition back into the fold. It must show that it can restore law and order and prevent a period of open-ended anarchy, but not through the excessive force of today. The initial ouster of Morsi made many Islamists around the Arab world think twice about his conduct in office. Today's events will probably simply reinforce a paranoid discourse that militates away from political engagement and towards violent confrontation.

So it is essential that the government not repeat any further measures that cast the Brotherhood as the "martyrs" that their own ideology extols so highly. One positive development was the reported "safe passage" offered to remaining protesters to leave the encampments unimpeded. But clearly this step in the right direction was nonetheless too little, too late.

The government needs to recall that the Brotherhood spent more than 80 years in opposition, often under extreme duress. It does not know how to govern, as Morsi's presidency amply demonstrated. But it does know how to cast itself as the long-suffering, oppressed and righteous warriors for Islam and how to milk every ounce of sympathy from such abuses. So, having already gone too far, the government has to be extremely careful about its next moves.

Gulf states have pledged considerable aid to the new Egyptian regime. The public is going to have to feel not only a rapid return to law and order and normalcy if the authority of the state is to be maintained. It is also going have to feel a palpable improvement in daily life if the legitimacy of the government is to be continued. It has ways forward, and means, but it cannot continue to make these mistakes and prosper.

As for the Brotherhood, the temptation to become even more violent in both rhetoric and action will be severe. There are clear signs that as far as some significant factions within the Brotherhood are concerned, the violent confrontation isn't over by a long shot. They may wish to find some means to extend conflict in order to further shake the government, push the contradictions and strengthen their own hand, or at least try to generate more sympathy in the general public.

If they do that, it will be an even bigger mistake than the government's crackdown. For it will give the government an excuse, and perhaps one some of its members are looking for, to attempt to cast the Brotherhood into oblivion once again. Of course such efforts won't work in the long run. But if it's a matter of hunkering down for a long haul of attrition, the Brotherhood can and will survive in some form, but the state will be able to do so much more successfully.

Meanwhile many ordinary Egyptians will find themselves back at square one, caught between Scylla and Charybdis. On one side a military-led government relying on emergency laws and crackdowns. On the other side an enraged, radicalized and increasingly sectarian and bloody-minded Islamist opposition. It's almost as if, not only the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but even the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser himself, never really happened.