Rethinking the Egyptian crisis

Khalil Al-Anani , Saturday 17 Aug 2013

Egypt's political crisis is more than a dispute over an ousted regime. It is more even than a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the army — a struggle that spans decades

As a result of the dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, Egypt now has entered a vicious circle of bloody confrontation. No one knows when and how it will stop.

Egypt's ongoing crisis betrays a profoundly divided environment with ideological, identity and political polarisation in a country where all parties are drowning in a culture of authoritarianism and exclusionary and arrogant practices — especially those in power.

What happened 3 July was not only a military coup against a regime that lost its raison d’etre because of its authoritarianism, narrow outlook and lack of political sense. It was, indeed, an open confrontation between the oldest and strongest political camps in Egypt, the Islamists and the military institution.

It is a confrontation that each side tried to postpone and avoid over the past three years but failed, which in the end resulted in the current crisis. In recent weeks it became clear that neither side possesses a realistic solution for the crisis. They are both in “denial,” trying to gain more time in order to steer the battle in their favour.

On the one hand, the Egyptian state insists on excluding Islamists, or at least bringing them to their knees, so they will never recover. But this is delusional, although the exclusionary current within the state appears to yield more influence and power in managing the current crisis.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies believe that mobilising the street will turn back the clock and return the Brotherhood to power.

Accordingly, the current crisis is much deeper than a dispute between an ousted regime seeking to remain alive at any cost and another regime that has no legitimacy (a military coup under popular cover) or legality (mass murder and political suppression of opponents).

The crux of the crisis is twofold: first, the absence of an innovative political vision to end the current standoff not only by the two contentious parties (the Brotherhood and the state), but also by other external and internal forces, some of whom looked on and gloated over the tragedy of the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, others remain silent until the dust settles, to change their orientation to side with the winning camp.

Second is the lack of trust between all parties to the dispute which has resulted in no or meek acceptance of the other and acceptance to share in gains and losses. This is bound to transform any political dispute into a zero-sum conflict in which each side must annihilate the other.

The state (at the heart of which is the military institution) is clearly practicing political humiliation and collective punishment against a specific political faction, the Muslim Brotherhood and other hues of political Islam. Before the dispersal of the sit-ins, the state offered the Muslim Brotherhood nothing but either to voluntarily end their mobilisation and sit-ins, or face suppression, exclusion and death. This was not only proof of the new regime’s ugliness, but also its lack of reason and political sense.

No reasonable person thinks the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups would accept a return to pre-25 January when they were suppressed and remained silent and when they were persecuted without objection. That is because the January 25 Revolution broke the fear barrier inside Egyptians across the spectrum, and it is not possible for them to surrender their freedoms and rights for which they paid a high price.

On the other hand, it is no longer only about the Muslim Brotherhood but a broad sector of Islamist groups that have long suffered at the hands of the Egyptian state over the past three decades. They will never allow this to happen again, no matter the cost.

Meanwhile, according to Muslim Brotherhood members, they don’t have much more to lose after they lost power, and therefore they are willing to pay any price to defend their freedoms and future.

In other words, attempts by the state to once again “subjugate” the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will fail, even if the ongoing crisis is resolved. A rule of thumb in negotiations: it's useless to beat a dead horse. The Muslim Brotherhood not only lost power and influence after only one year in rule, but also tarnished their image and lost popularity. It is recovering now because of its resilience on the street and the brutality of the state against them.

The equation of the current crisis is the following: the state is trying to break the Muslim Brotherhood so the latter accepts the new realities of 30 June and voluntarily takes whatever the state offers them. If they do not accept, the price will be very high, namely suppression, persecution and violence. The state is basing its calculations on two factors: first, the Brotherhood’s relative isolation and disorientation whereby it appears to give top priority to its survival; second, the relative public support of today’s regime in confronting the Brotherhood for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.

Nonetheless, the regime seems to forget that the Muslim Brotherhood of 2013 is not the same as that of the 1980s, 1990s and first decade of the millennium. We are talking about a key social and demographic segment that is hard to control or suppress without a backlash against the regime and those in power.

From the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, their current position is built on two points: continued mobilisation on the street, if not for the return of “legitimacy” (which here means restoring Mohamed Morsi, the suspended constitution and Shura Council), then at least to prevent a return to the hardships, brutality and corruption of the Mubarak era. Second, relying on a coup against a coup whereby divisions occur within the establishment and current interim government. This would strengthen the Brotherhood and its negotiating power with the state.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has disregarded two key issues: first, mobilisation alone without negotiations, bartering and compromise will never resolve the crisis, and are no guarantee the other side will be forced to comply with the movement's demands. On the contrary, it may be justification for suppression, exclusion and isolation. Second, any split within the current power institution — albeit unlikely — will have detrimental repercussions for the Muslim Brotherhood, state and society, because of the expected violence that will impact everyone without exception. Moreover, there is also the possibility of division within the Islamist camp itself during a power struggle once the state is weakened.

Accordingly, there is an urgent need to reconsider the Egyptian crisis by focusing on two things: first, the crisis should not be abridged as a struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, but a battle between an oppressive authoritarian state run by a network of interests and relations fueled by a long history of corruption, cronyism and dependency, on the one hand, and broad social sectors and movements trying to change the political actions and conduct of this state on the other.

Second, it is incorrect to believe that those in power today are less of a threat to democracy and the future of the country than those who were in power a few weeks earlier. Neither cares much about democracy, regardless of their proclamations and assertions. Both only care about their own interests and networks.

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