Showdown in Cairo

Print edition : September 06, 2013

Supporters of General Ahmed Fattah El-Sisi at Tahrir Square on July 26. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Supporters of Mohamed Morsy march towards Cairo University to demand his reinstatement on July 19. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

William Burns (U.S., centre) and Bernardino Leon (E.U., right) meet Mohamed ElBaradei in Cairo. Photo: REUTERS

U.S. Senators John McCain (left) and Lindsey Graham at a media conference in Cairo on August 6. Photo: ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS

Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is the face of the military takeover. Photo: Jim Watson/AP

The interim government, backed by the Gulf monarchies, is firm in its decision to marginalise the Muslim Brotherhood despite intense pressure from the U.S.-led West.

THE RELENTLESS PRESSURE MOUNTED BY THE UNITED States and its European allies to coax Egypt’s military-backed interim rulers to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political mainstream has backfired resoundingly. So provoked was an adviser to the provisional President, Adly Mansour, by the barrage of exhortations to re-accommodate Brotherhood heavyweights that was coming from Western officials and politicians that he did little to conceal his annoyance. Ahmed El-Muslimani, the presidential spokesman, said: “Foreign pressure has exceeded international standards.”

The Egyptians have been particularly piqued by the imperious rulings of John McCain,the super hawk U.S. Senator, who arrived in Cairo with fellow lawmaker Lindsey Graham. In their disastrous press conference, the two talked down their Egyptian hosts with an ultimatum that a cut-off of the $1.5 billion aid—paltry by the standards of the Gulf petro-monarchies who have decided to back the new government—was on the cards unless the jailed Islamist leaders were released and dialogue with them was started.

The visiting delegations focussed particularly on freeing the deposed President, Mohamed Morsy, who is under detention in an undeclared facility after the July 3 military takeover of the country. Two other high-profile Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Khairat El-Shater and Saad El-Katatni, are also in prison after the coup.

Morsy’s ouster triggered sharply contrasting responses. In a society that is deeply polarised around secular and Islamist cores, Morsy’s opponents, including the minority Coptic Christians and millions of secular youth, swiftly went into celebratory mode. But the President’s angry supporters also hit the streets hard. From their base in Cairo’s upscale Nasr City, outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where thousands of them had earlier established a tented city, protest marches radiated in all directions across Cairo. There was widespread violence too. At least 53 people were killed in the early hours of July 8, when Morsy’s supporters apparently tried to storm the headquarters of the Egyptian Republican Guard, the perceived location of Morsy’s detention, resulting in indiscriminate firing from the military. A bigger bloodbath was to follow a few days later. In the hours before the break of dawn on July 27, scores of Brotherhood supporters were killed in firing when they tried to occupy the 6th October Bridge, Cairo’s lifeline, not far from the encampment in Nasr City.

At their press meet in Cairo, Senator McCain said that “the circumstances of the former government’s President’s removal were a coup, and we have said that we cannot expect Egypt or any other country to abide by its laws if we do not abide by ours in the United States”. By describing the July 3 military takeover of the government as a “coup” —a coinage which, if accepted by Washington, would mean automatic termination of the $1.5-billion U.S. aid to Egypt—the Senator alienated himself from Egypt’s new administration. Both the Senators urged Egypt’s provisional government to free detained members of the Brotherhood, including Morsy, before initiating talks with the group. “In a democracy, you sit down and talk to each other,” counselled Graham. “It is impossible to talk to somebody who is in jail.” Like most Westerners, the two Senators failed to gauge the global power shifts which were fast eroding the Western monopoly of power and influence. New centres of power are on the horizon, offering Egypt wider options to pick and choose its allies.

Responding angrily to McCain’s comments, Ahmed El-Muslimani said: “John McCain is distorting facts. His clumsy statements are unacceptable in form and substance.” The interim government was also unhappy that foreign diplomats and politicians, including the two Senators, had failed to persuade Morsy’s supporters to call off their protest.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was also in Cairo to work out a way out of the impasse. Accompanied by the Foreign Ministers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, Burns met El-Shater and El-Katatni. Analysts said the interim government was deeply resentful of the message emerging out of foreign mediation that the Brotherhood must be fully accommodated in steering Egypt’s democratic future.

The state-run newspaper Al Ahram reported that following the Western initiative of unilateral mediation, the interim President had decided to release a statement faulting foreign intervention for its failure “to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood on a peaceful solution”.

The Egyptians are deeply suspicious of the intentions of the U.S. because of its recent track record of supporting Islamists. The Obama administration has gone out of its way to align with Turkey, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots. In Libya, the Americans backed Islamists who were supported by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to bring about “regime change” by toppling the secular Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli. In Cairo, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, has been so closely identified as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square her pictures have been crossed by a big X sign as a sign of rejection and partisanship.

At the Square, the animosity towards the Obama administration is clearly visible. Inscribed on many banners, with Barack Obama’s picture in one corner, is the slogan: “Wake up America, Obama backs a fascist regime in Egypt”. Another banner that is stingingly critical of the Americans says: “Obama supports terrorism.”

Washington’s European allies have not fared any better. For instance, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, who was in Cairo for talks, blamed the country’s new rulers for a complete lack of interest in engaging the Muslim Brotherhood. “Having spoken to the interim President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, my impression is that they simply see no merit at this stage in talking to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Timmermans during a telephonic interview with Reuters. He acknowledged that the local media had denounced foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs, but nevertheless warned: “Whether there is foreign mediation or not, they will have to come to terms with the fact that they have to talk to the Brotherhood, and better sooner than later.”

In a joint statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton lamented that a compromise formula was yet to evolve in Cairo. “While further violent confrontations have thus far been avoided, we remain concerned and troubled that government and opposition leaders have not yet found a way to break a dangerous stalemate and agree to implement tangible confidence-building measures,” the statement said. “This remains a very fragile situation, which not only holds the risk of more bloodshed and polarisation in Egypt but also impedes the economic recovery which is so essential for Egypt’s successful transition,” it added.

None of this has pleased the Egyptian establishment. Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the face of the military takeover, made no secret of his misgivings about the U.S. intentions in Egypt. In an interview with The Washington Post, he accused the American establishment of turning its back on the Egyptian people. He said: “You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget that. Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

He also slammed the U.S. for fence-sitting when the country was in dire need of economic support. “Where is the economic support to Egypt from the U.S.? Even throughout the year when the former President was in office—where was the U.S. support to help the country restore its economy and overcome its dire needs?” he said. Insiders in the Morsy administration point out that the ousted government could not finalise a $4.8 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because the Western-backed institution imposed unacceptable conditions, including deep subsidy cuts, which, if accepted, would have affected the lives of millions of poor Egyptians.

The general pointed out that Americans had ignored the popular support for the military takeover and, instead, focussed on technicalities. El-Sisi’s assertions seem to be borne out by an opinion poll conducted a week before the huge anti-Morsy demonstrations of June 30. According to the poll, only 29 per cent of Egyptians claimed they had confidence in the government.

General El-Sisi observed in the interview that the military assertion was necessary as the country was hurtling towards a “civil war”. He stressed that President Morsy had not accepted the military’s advice on the day of his exit to undertake a referendum to gauge his acceptability among the people. According to the general, Morsy said: “No way. Not yet. After two years.”

The general made it clear that the interim government was unlikely to budge from the transition road map that it had announced soon after the military takeover. “The first point is that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court will be an interim President for the republic. A technocrat government has been formed. A committee will be formed of legal and constitutional experts to address constitutional amendments and provide recommendations for public debate. After the public debate, the Constitution will be put up for a public referendum. Once the Constitution is approved, we will conduct parliamentary and then presidential elections within nine months,” he said in the interview.

The military’s assertion, backed by massive youth mobilisation, especially by the Tamarod (Rebel) campaign and others such as the April 6 Youth Movement, have transformed Tahrir Square, once the icon of the uprising that had brought down former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Two years later, Tahrir Square has been turned from an arena of spontaneous rebellion to a staging post for managed change. At the Square, there is a conscious attempt to elevate the Egyptian military to iconic status and General El-Sisi as the successor of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the celebrated symbol of Arab nationalism. It is not surprising that Tahrir Square is awash with pictures of El-Sisi, in full uniformed regalia, juxtaposed with images of Nasser and former President Anwar Sadat. The general is also being projected as a social unifier—with pictures being circulated around at the Square that show him flanked by Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and the Grand Mufti of the Al Azhar mosque.

Support from Gulf monarchies

Hefty financial and political support from the oil-rich Gulf countries seems to embolden General El-Sisi to counter the enormous political pressure coming from the West. Saudi Arabia, deprived of a strategic anchor in Egypt with the fall of Mubarak, its key ally, swiftly welcomed the July 3 coup. It quickly pledged a $5 billion aid to Egypt, with the UAE joining in with an offer of $3 billion. The Kuwaitis too warmed up to the new government, by offering $4 billion. The three countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had thus collectively put a whopping $12 billion on the table—way above the American aid of $1.5 billion that McCain was threatening to cut off, and nearly three times the size of the loan that the IMF was ready to offer, provided Morsy abandoned his country’s poor.

In fact, one of the subplots of the Egyptian drama is the autonomous assertion by some of the wealthy Gulf countries, which seem ready to protect their core interests when they conflict with the strategic preferences of the U.S.-led West. The Saudi world view seems to have changed dramatically after the Americans allowed Mubarak to sink in 2011.

The differences between the Americans and leading Gulf petro-monarchies over Egypt are widely reflected in a section of the Saudi and Kuwaiti media. An editorial in the pro-monarchy Saudi daily Al Watan rejected mainstreaming the Muslim Brotherhood and counselled the organisation instead to read the writing on the wall and capitulate. “The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders have no other option but to seek safe exits, in order to stop the bloodshed and save face following the great contradictions which were recently seen in their rhetoric and after unexpected secrets were revealed about their term in power,” said the daily. It added: “The future outcome is unclear, but to many, the wise decision would be for the leaders of the MB and the Anti-Coup, Pro-Legitimacy National Alliance to quickly back down on their previous positions and succumb to the fait accompli.” The editorial recommended that Morsy’s “public resignation” might be a good option, for, “Egyptian people, including the MB members, realise that the former President cannot return to power and that he would never be able to come back without the support of all the state institutions.”

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai al-Aam went further to allege that the Americans had turned hostile to General El-Sisi. The newspaper, quoting a “sovereign security source”, revealed that the U.S. had been “pressuring Europe and some Gulf States to dispatch delegations in an attempt at forming an international position against the General Commander of the Armed Forces and Defence Minister, Abdul Fattah El-Sisi.” It added that “Saudi Arabia was the only state that refused to dispatch any delegation”. The daily pointed out that the objective of the visiting American delegations to Egypt was “to gain time and to deal a blow to the strong relationship between the people and the army”.

Uncompromising in its tenor, despite the exhortations from foreign delegations, the interim government has stressed that it will not rule out the use of force to evict the two encampments of Brotherhood supporters—one outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and the other opposite the Cairo University campus. Interim Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi read the protesters the riot act. He asked them to leave voluntarily and said the decision to disperse the sit-ins was final. He pointed out that the government had so far not removed the encampments out of deference for the month of Ramzan, which had ended.

Tamarod, the youth campaign, has also announced that it will continue to mount street pressure in support of the military-backed interim government. In a statement, it called upon its supporters to fill in public squares throughout the country for Eid celebrations and demonstrate support for the military. “The Rebel campaign calls on the Egyptian masses to congregate during… Eid prayers to reject foreign intervention in Egypt’s affairs and support national independence, preventing a particular faction from overtaking areas for Eid prayer,” it said. By doing so, Tamarod hoped to pre-empt the occupation of public spaces by Brotherhood supporters at the commencement of Eid celebrations. The group vowed to continue what it called was the “second wave” of the Egyptian revolution, which began on June 30 with the mobilisation of millions in street protests demanding Morsy’s exit, leading to the military takeover on July 3.

With the military firm in its decision to marginalise the Muslim Brotherhood, which, in turn, is refusing to call off its mass protests, the stage is being set in Egypt for a bloody showdown. These confrontations are unlikely to remain confined to the capital and could rapidly spread across Brotherhood strongholds in upper Egypt and the already inflamed Sinai desert zone. However, the prospect of a civil war is remote, as the army is unlikely to split along ideological lines even under conditions of a prolonged stalemate and stress. The Egyptian security forces also seem capable of arresting large cross-border flows of arms to the country’s Islamists from a restive neighbourhood, especially Libya. Without a steady flow of weaponry, it would be virtually impossible for the Brotherhood to morph from an organisation adept at open protests to a secretive body that is ready for a covert war.