There is an abundance of irony in the current Egyptian situation. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leadership is convinced that there are huge forces within Egypt that wishes to wipe it out. Yet, with the actions of the past couple of weeks, the MB has managed to increase the popularity of such sentiment – and at the same time, alienate its best allies to combat such sentiment.
When the revolution began on the 25th of January 2011, almost two years ago, it was not the fall of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that was the greatest accomplishment. Frankly, at that point, he had become irrelevant and almost inconsequential. A revitalised Egyptian consciousness was born in Tahrir Square: one that neither Mubarak nor any of his backers could understand at the time. That consciousness still energises the supporters of the revolution today.
If Egyptians expected the constitution to reflect that consciousness in its totality, then that would have been naïve, if visionary. But it seems that less than two years on, it’s assumed that spirit has all but been extinguished. That’s a cynicism that misses, completely, why Egyptians went to the streets over the past two weeks to protest President Morsi’s decision.
It is easy to reduce this entire crisis to two clearly defined sides – and certainly, it appears that much of the international media has succumbed to that. The way in which this has been portrayed as a democratically elected Islamist movement fighting against a secular opposition crying over spilt milk, is all but total in different fora. That narrative accepts untrue assumptions, and only serves to disrupt any effort at understanding what is happening.
Nevertheless, the international media are not the only ones involved in that kind of crass essentialism. Looking at different communication from the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokespeople and official representatives, as well as their supporters, one sees very clearly a worldview that is very stark. It’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s ‘us’ trying to survive being extinguished by ‘them’. They remember well the years under the previous regime where members of the MB were persecuted. After their democratically won gains in elections over the past couple of years, they have no intention of reverting back to that. In the midst of that, the more strident the opposition as just being Mubarak stalwarts who seek to throw the MB into cages. The most strident see them as wanting to destroy Islam itself.
Supporters of the MB are not the only ones who have a Manichean worldview. One does not see this kind of sentiment coming from the leadership of the opposition – but certainly, there are those who view this as a cultural war. A cultural war where the MB must fall, be defeated, and emaciated so that Egypt can take her rightful place in the world. Mr Morsi winning the elections is immaterial – he should never have been allowed to run in the first place, and it is shameful that when he did run, all intelligent human beings did not vote for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister. In the new Egypt, the law must ban the MB: for otherwise, these fascistic militants will destroy Egypt.
Neither of these perspectives was in the square between the 25th of January and the 11th of February, 2011. If anything, that kind of worldview back then was present only in the regime of Hosni Mubarak – and it was precisely that worldview that the square stood in contradistinction to.
One cannot say that the effects of these two worldviews are equal. A member of the MB is in the presidency, and it’s organisation all around Egypt means that the more powerful such a worldview is within, the more vicious the effects will be on the country as a whole. The sectarian messaging that is becoming more and more pervasive, describing the crisis as one where ‘Islam’ itself is under attack, is deeply concerning. Moreover, such messaging, if it comes from the right people in positions of authority in the MB, can affect huge numbers of people.
One cannot say the same for the opposition. The political leadership has far less control over the protestors, who are in the streets not because al-Baradei or others asked them to – but because they spontaneously rejected President Morsi’s actions and policies. That leadership has little control over them. Moreover, the truly concerning messaging does not come from the leadership anyway – it comes from far more isolated voices. Qualitatively, the rhetoric is immensely damaging – but in terms of effect, it’s far more contained.
But where both of these worldviews equally miss the plot is precisely the dehumanising of the other side. None of which was in the square, and which is so urgently needed now. The MB need to recall, for example, that many of those who protest against Mr Morsi today, are the same people who defended the MB when they were in jails under Mubarak. More radical supporters of the opposition also need to recognise that while the MB are their political adversaries, they are an integral part of the Egyptian political arena, and must be viewed as such.
Diminishing the levels of polarisation is not an easy task – and it looks as though Egypt will have to engage in years of repair to its political discourse. But the time for beginning that process must be forged in a moment of fire, like the one Egypt is undergoing at present. Egyptians must remember Egypt is big enough for all of them – and that is why the revolution began on the 25th of January 2011. Anything else is a betrayal of those 18 days.
If the Muslim Brotherhood is convinced it is being targeted for destruction, then it must seek out alliances with those who, on principle, will not allow such a thing to happen. Their best hopes for that are within the opposition. There is one person who holds the key to beginning that process, not just for this crisis, but for Egypt’s future. He was elected president of Egypt in June 2012.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer http://www.hahellyer.com/