Cover Story

Uncertain in Egypt

Print edition : September 20, 2013

The burnt Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque in Cairo's Nasr City, a day after the crackdown by security forces on protesting Muslim Brotherhood supporters outside it, on August 15. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Khairat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's political heavyweight, who was also arrested on August 20. Photo: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was arrested on August 20. Photo: AFP

Opponents of Morsy wave posters of Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo on August 8. Photo: Amr Nabil/AP

A rally by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy at Dalga village in upper Egypt on August 30. Photo: Roger Anis/AP

AFTER stifling a revolt and stamping its authority, Egypt’s military-backed interim government is preparing for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. The 85-year-old Islamist organisation has been seeking the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first elected President, who was deposed in a military coup on July 3.

With the balance of power swinging its way after a bloody crackdown outside the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr city in mid-August, which left around 2,000 Brotherhood activists dead and many more injured or jailed, the interim government, headed by President Adly Mansour, appears ready for talks with the beleaguered Islamists. The government’s confidence was bolstered by the fact that it had managed to imprison top-rung Brotherhood leaders. Mohammed Badie, the organisation’s spiritual guide who lost his son in the crackdown, was arrested by the police on August 20. So was Khairat el-Shater, its political heavyweight and a business tycoon. The government has demonstrated that it does not plan to reinstate Morsy in the near future. Besides, the Brotherhood’s inability to muster huge crowds after the crackdown has boosted the confidence of the junta.

The government tested the waters on another count, too. Soon after a court released from prison former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2011, the government decided to place him under house arrest. But for token murmurings, the Egyptian street seemed to have accepted the decision, signalling to the government that the people were losing their stamina for blind protests. Instead of polemics, violence, religious and sectarian polarisation, Egyptians appeared ready to accept a functional democracy, a phase of stability, and a promise of a meaningful economic transition.

The first public utterance that the military under Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was ready for a political engagement emerged when interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi told state television in an interview that the government did not intend to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. His statement marked a dramatic reversal of position as, soon after the crackdown on Morsy supporters in Cairo, he had asserted that an end to the Brotherhood’s legal existence was under serious consideration.

Beblawi observed that instead of imposing a ban, the government would strictly monitor the group and its political wing, whose fate would depend on its actions in the future. “Dissolving the party or the group is not the solution, and it is wrong to make decisions in turbulent situations,” the state news agency MENA quoted Beblawi as saying. “It is better for us to monitor parties and groups in the framework of political action without dissolving them or having them act in secret.”

Several factors seemed to have persuaded the government to go in for talks. In Egyptian political circles, there is a view that Gen. El-Sisi took the call for reaching out for a dialogue following his assessment that the use of heavy force was no longer helpful in bringing the Brotherhood to the negotiating table. Foreign influence, in the form of regular conversations between Gen. El-Sisi and his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, also appeared to have played a complementary role in convincing the government to shift track towards holding talks. Beblawi also observed that the prolongation of the crisis was taking its toll on an already depleted economy.

With the military changing its mind, the debate within the establishment began to shift towards initiating a dialogue. Cabinet member Ziad Baheddine’s advocacy of negotiations and a political settlement with the Brotherhood, which had been opposed by a powerful group in the establishment, began to acquire traction. The prevalence of Baheddine’s line meant a defeat for the “security camp”, led by Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who had been the chief advocate for expunging the Brotherhood’s political existence. A decision to engage with the Brotherhood also meant the marginalisation on this issue of hard-line secularists who supported a blanket ban on all religious parties.

An incisive write-up posted on the website of the state-run daily Al Ahram revealed the broad contours of the agenda of future negotiations. “The deal, which is being contemplated rather than fully proposed, would include an end to both anti-state and anti-Islamist incitement; the release of all arrested Brotherhood members who are proven innocent of inciting or committing acts of violence; the suspension of anti-military attacks in Sinai; and a reconsideration of… a final decision to dissolve the Brotherhood,” it said.

After the crackdown, the Islamists, on their part, also signalled their willingness to explore the possibility of negotiations, hoping to cut their losses. This sentiment to ride out the storm is shared by other Islamists, including the ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which has interpreted the current situation as a general threat to the Islamist ideological current in the country. Unsurprisingly, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has taken the initiative of becoming one of the main points of contact between the government and the Brotherhood. The group’s media adviser, Mohamed Hassan, has been quoted as saying that a solution to the current crisis can be found if the military agreed to Morsy’s token return to the presidency, which would be followed by his immediate resignation, along with the announcement of presidential election under international supervision.

The Salafist Al Nour party has also jumped into the fray to seek a functional reconciliation between the military and the Brotherhood. The daily Al-Masry Al-Youm is reporting meetings between the Salafists and Brotherhood leaders to produce a document that will be submitted to the military to defuse the crisis. The text will suggest that Brotherhood figures who have been jailed but are not implicated in crimes should not be prosecuted. In turn, the Brotherhood will accept the army’s transition road map revealed in July and re-enter the political mainstream, provided three of its chosen members are included in the 50-member committee that is engaged in redrafting the Constitution.

The Al Nour party has taken the onus of guaranteeing the Brotherhood’s strict compliance with the document’s script.

Having seized the initiative on the ground, the interim government is making maximalist demands as its opening gambit in a dialogue. It apparently wants the Brotherhood to acknowledge the legitimacy of the “30 June Revolution”, the day of massive anti-Morsy protests, which were followed by the July 3 military takeover. Besides, it wants the Islamist group to abandon any demands for release of top Brotherhood leaders. The military is in no mood to relax its grip in the Sinai desert area, which has become a violent Islamist hotbed.

Despite significant efforts, the proposed talks are unlikely to yield early results. This is partly on account of the deep mistrust that has developed between the military and the Brotherhood. The military has pointed out that serious dialogue with the Brotherhood had made significant headway, especially before the June 30 demonstrations. The army had at that time wanted Morsy to step down and go in for a national referendum to test whether the people still wanted him to continue in office. Apparently, after June 30, in the wake of the demonstrations, the President’s position became inflexible as he insisted on continuing in office for his entire four-year term.

Backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, Gulf petro-monarchies, which have jointly pledged $12 billion to the new rulers, the interim government is showing no signs of succumbing to Western pressures. It appears unruffled by threats from the United States that it could terminate its annual tranche of $2 billion to the military if the regime did not fall in line.

Keen on diversifying its relationship and reducing its dependence on the U.S., the provisional government is hinting at establishing full-blown military relations with Russia. In a recent interview to ABC News, Beblawi said the U.S. would be committing a big mistake if it cut the military aid to Egypt. However, he asserted that Cairo would deal with the situation as it could turn to Russia as a possible weapons supplier. “Let’s not forget that Egypt went to the Russian military for support and we survived. So, there is no end to life,” he said. “You can live with different circumstances.”

NASSERITE UTTERANCES

Military ties with Moscow, if re-established, are bound to trigger the collective memory of the bilateral relations that thrived during the presidency of the Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In its ideological confrontation with the Islamists, the new regime is reviving the nostalgia of its pan-Arab and anti-imperialist past. At Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbol of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, pictures of Gen. El-Sisi are juxtaposed with those of Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. Banners critical of the U.S. and Anne Patterson, its ambassador to Egypt, are strung all around the square.

The Tamarod youth movement that was responsible for the huge anti-Morsy mobilisations also talks the language of the Nasser era. Its neo-Nasserite utterances emerged in colourful detail over Syria, which has been threatened with Western military strikes. In a recent statement, the Tamarod movement exhorted the authorities to close the Suez Canal in order to prevent the passage of military warships that could be used to attack Syria.

“We should shut the Suez Canal before destroyers, machinery or oil vessels pass to strike Syria,” said Hassan Shahin, the Tamarod spokesperson on the movement’s Facebook page. “We’ll support the Arab Syrian army. No place for traitors,” he added.

The Egyptian officialdom also opposed the Western position that Syria was a legitimate target of military strikes as it had used chemical weapons against its own people on the outskirts of Damascus. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy stressed, “Egypt rejects military intervention in Syria, as we believe a political solution is the only way out for the crisis there. Egypt supports the Geneva-II talks.” By referring to the Geneva process, Egypt appeared to have aligned its position with that of Russia and China, which remain the most outspoken advocates of the commencement of diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Egyptians also made it clear that they did not accept the summary conclusion drawn by the Western powers that the Syrian government was responsible for the August 21 attack. “Accountability should be based on accurate information, in order to determine who is responsible for the chemical attack in Ghouta,” Fahmy observed.

With the Brotherhood marginalised, Egypt is in the process of reinventing itself on the basis of a secular neo-Nasserite ideology which, in the best-case scenario, could result in the emergence of an imperfect functional democracy, operating under the watchful eyes of the military. With forces of stability and nationalism overriding expressions of people’s power, the turn of events in Egypt are a pointer to the dependence of developing societies on a strong state to steer their political and economic transition.

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