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Egyptian diplomats seek to contain international outcry over violence

Egyptian foreign ministry sources are confident that anger in Western capitals over the violent dispersal of protest camps in Cairo can be contained

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 15 Aug 2013
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After Wednesday’s bloody violence, with death tolls around Egypt reaching over 500 and continuing to rise, Egyptian diplomats have a tough challenge to explain what is going on to the international community.

On Wednesday, Egyptian security forces moved to disperse two ongoing sit-ins in Cairo by supporters of Mohamed Morsi. The dispersals themselves quickly descended into deadly violence, despite government statements that the police used “restraint.” The dispersals triggered violent reactions across the country as Morsi supporters held protests, clashed with police, and attacked dozens of churches. Liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei resigned his post as vice president for foreign affairs in protest at the wave of violence and the actions of the security forces.

“I have to admit it, we are in a very bad situation; from the security perspective this death toll is about average, as they tell us, but from the point of view of the international community this is a massacre and our job is to explain to the world why the state had to intervene,” said a foreign ministry source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Press releases issued by the office of the spokesman of the foreign minister came one after the other, sharing statements by Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in which he stressed that the state had to apply the law.

“The government has no other option left but to disperse the two sit-ins after all other mediations failed,” Fahmy told PBS, according to the press release issued by his office.

A similar line was taken by Egyptian ambassador to Washington Mohamed Tawfik during an interview with CNN, as well as by Egyptian ambassadors in several European capitals where they were summoned by the respective governments.

The statements of dismay over “violence” and the “violations committed by police during the dispersal of the sit-ins” in Cairo and Giza were not unmatched, according to Egyptian diplomats in Cairo and overseas, with “a few phrases” suggesting “an understanding of sorts” that the Egyptian authorities could not have turned a blind eye to the need impose the rule of law.

“Let me say that there is a great deal of unease over the bloodshed of yesterday; of course the images that came out of the dispersion of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in are shocking and of course these (Western) governments have a moral obligation to express dismay over these images, but the basic concern there is the impact of the recent developments on stability in Egypt,” said an Egyptian envoy to a western capital who asked to remain anonymous.

For the most part, Egyptian diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online agree. However, they describe the situation as complex, with one source citing “the fact that Washington was counting essentially on the rule of moderate Islamist groups to combat militant Islamist groups and to accommodate the public anger against Israel and the West” and the “cross-Atlantic competition between Washington and Paris on who would have the first and stronger say on developments in the Middle East.”

Moreover, the same diplomats say that there is inevitably concern over the fate of a nascent democracy which is considered necessary for ensuring stability and development in the southern Mediterranean - “something that could significantly reduce the waves of illegal migration to the southern European countries.”

“I think we should expect the international community to give us a hard time for a few weeks but at the end of the day the international community cannot give up on Egypt and it will as it has always done deal with the powerful authorities – the authorities proved to be powerful,” said an Egyptian diplomat based in a European capital.

A key factor that Egyptian diplomacy is counting on in its efforts to contain the rage over the scenes of bloodsheds that were qualified as “unjustifiable” by some Western capitals is the “realisation of Washington” that if the authorities in Cairo failed to live up to the challenge of the central state then Egypt could have fallen into wide disarray.

“When they tell us it was a big massacre we say ‘what else did you expect us to do’ – we were given no choice, although we have tried,” said a government official in Cairo.

Several foreign diplomats in Cairo insist that authorities in Egypt did not try hard enough and were not patient enough. A deal, they say, could have been fixed had it not been for the premature attack on the sit-ins, according to the assessment of Cairo-based European diplomats.

“We tried to get a deal but it was impossible simply because the Muslim Brotherhood insisted on a list of demands that could not have been accommodated after the 30 June demonstrations; the Muslim Brotherhood completely lost public sympathy and the army is acting on that basis,” said a military source.

In addition to the “implicit” support that Cairo is receiving through the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – who is in constant contact with armed forces chief General Al-Sisi – Egyptian authorities are also trying to highlight attacks on churches over the last month, to make the case that the Brotherhood are “a group whose anger over the ouster of the president is getting out of hand and cannot be left unattended,” the source said.

Egyptian diplomats admit that the resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei hours after the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins was “very harmful” to the image of Egypt but they insist that the impact of his resignation will not last for very long because “the images of blood in Rabaa Al-Adawiya are much more disturbing than anything else”.

The assessment in Cairo is that as much as Egypt managed to muddle its way through the debate over whether or not to qualify the ouster of Morsi on 3 July as a coup or not, it will also get through the international anger over the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins.

“We are shocked by the images but what counts most for us is to see Egypt moving towards a democratic process that does not exclude anyone,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat. He told Ahram Online that his government is hoping to see “those involved in the excessive use of force” brought to justice, and that it would be advocating for this to happen soon.  

Diplomatic sources also told Ahram Online that it is unlikely that the “Egyptian file” will be subject to an official debate by the UN Security Council, as Turkey has been demanding. “Things will not go that far,” said one.

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