This Week in Oppressive Government Violence Egypt: August 18, 2013

No other story of governments mistreating their citizens this week is going to hold a candle to what happened in Egypt, obviously. The total death toll for the week is somewhere around 900, although as far as I can tell these are official Egyptian government figures and may easily be under-counting. Wednesday’s attacks, which killed over 600, were followed by more protests in what the Muslim Brotherhood called a “day of rage” on Friday, and another 173 were killed. Egypt’s government imposed a month-long state of emergency, including curfews and wide latitude on the part of the already unconstrained security forces to deal with Brotherhood supporters however they see fit. This includes, apparently, killing unarmed prisoners, although to be fair the government claims that those prisoners were attempting to escape, and there’s no reason not to trust the Egyptian government, right?

The latter incident seems to be directly animating new protests today, with crowds demanding an investigation into how 38+ prisoners were killed in custody, and the government responding with three different stories (there was an attack on the prisoner convoy, the prisoners had overpowered a guard in an escape attempt, and the prisoners were attempting an escape but had not overpowered a guard) to explain what happened. Also feeding protester anger is the weekend assault on a crowd of protesters who had taken refuge in Cairo’s el-Fath Mosque, amid state media reports that snipers were firing on security forces from the mosque’s minaret. The government authorized the use of live ammunition against protesters after several government offices were attacked following Wednesday’s violence. I guess security forces were using birdshot before they got the live ammo go-ahead? Also Monday, militants in the Sinai ambushed Egyptian security forces there, killing at least 25 of them.

More thoughts on what’s going on below.

To say that it’s unclear where Egypt goes from here is to understate quite a bit. The one thing that seems fairly certain is that functioning democracy is out of the question. You don’t go from elections, to military coup, to ~1000 or so killed as the military represses open opposition to said coup, to democracy. The government is obviously defending its actions, contending that the protesters were terrorists (flying the al-Qaeda flag, US Americans! What could be more Terrorist?) and were “firing machine guns at civilians.” The next piece of evidence supporting either charge will be the first, whereas there is evidence of government forces shooting unarmed protesters (warning for graphic video). The government is in discussion about whether or not to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood, but more on that in a minute. Whatever government winds up taking shape in Egypt may be called democracy, may have elections and all (hell, even the newly freed, which would be funny in a different context, Hosni Mubarak held elections; he just never let anybody run against him), but it won’t be democracy and it won’t be free. When you preemptively remove political parties from the process on the basis of Thoughtcrime, you’re not operating a democracy. When protesters in the streets are labeled “terrorists” on the basis of Take Our Word for It and then slaughtered by the hundreds, that’s not freedom. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can (chillingly, in my view) talk about how the Egyptian military is the “guardian” of the “free will” of the Egyptian people, but if the Egyptian people have no way to remove the “guardian” then their will is not all that free.

Mubarak 2014: His slogan should be, "Don't Pretend It Couldn't Be Worse"
Mubarak 2014: His slogan should be “Don’t Pretend It Couldn’t Be Worse”

If that seems like a one-sided accounting of events, well, it is. But Brotherhood and its supporters, and members of Egypt’s more militant Salafi groups, have not exactly covered themselves with glory over the past week. There are numerous reports of attacks against Coptic churches and Christian shops/neighborhoods by Brotherhood supporters since Wednesday’s initial violence. Protesters accuse the Copts of somehow being in cahoots with the military to overthrow Morsi, but mostly they attack the Copts because, historically, when some Muslim group or another in Egypt feels aggrieved and wants to lash out, it attacks the Copts. Also, heartbreakingly, the Malawi National Museum in al-Minya, which featured exhibits from archeological digs in the surrounding areas of Upper Egypt, has been completely looted, its priceless artifacts almost completely lost. There is nothing about these attacks that can be defended, of course. At the same time, the attempt by some to use these attacks to justify the military crackdown against the MB is, well, it violates the law of cause and effect for one thing, since the church attacks happened after the protesters were attacked. For another, as much as I appreciate historic buildings and especially museums and places of worship, some wrecked buildings and lost museum exhibits do not justify 900 or so dead bodies in the streets. Also, if Egypt’s military government is now somehow going to pretend to be the great protector of the Copts, after decades of ignoring violence against the Coptic community while institutionally undercutting it at every turn, they must think the rest of the world just fell off the turnip truck and dashed its collective brains on a rock when it hit the ground.

The government is sending out mixed signals about the Brotherhood’s future, with PM Hazem el- Beblawi openly speculating that the organization could be outlawed, again, but his boss el-Sisi contending that there is “room for everyone in Egypt.” Maybe some people just get more room than others? Really, though, how can the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood reconcile at this point? The government has declared that everyone who took to the streets was a terrorist, and needless to say many of them were not even members of the Brotherhood; doesn’t that make the actual Brotherhood and its leadership criminals? Wouldn’t negotiating to bring the Brotherhood back into the political system at this point simply demonstrate that everything the government has been saying for the past week plus has been bullshit? For its part, how is the Brotherhood expected to react to being backed into a corner like this? The only hope to move forward after Morsi was toppled was to bring the Brotherhood in to the political process again, get them to negotiate away from their stated demand that Morsi be restored (a complete impossibility, given the degree to which Morsi and the Brotherhood saw their public support crater while in office), akin to the political engagement of the IRA that helped, if not end, then at least dramatically scale back the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Instead, Egypt’s appointed government and the military that controls it have driven the Brotherhood out of politics, labeled its protests illegitimate, and is not talking about outlawing it again. El-Sisi holds out the possibility of reconciliation, but entirely on his terms, which is almost guaranteed to be rejected by the Brotherhood.

Even if the military is able to take the Brotherhood apart organizationally, something it has failed to do repeatedly over the 85 or so years since the Brotherhood was formed and something that countless secular Muslim governments have tried and failed to do with internal religiously-oriented opposition movements, what will that accomplish? You can kill or jail the leaders, scatter the Brotherhood to the winds, but then instead of dealing with one cohesive fundamentalist organization with a strong governing structure that can negotiate, you may be dealing with a vast number of angry and increasingly militant fundamentalists who have no cohesion but do have access to weapons and a strong desire to use them. A lot of observers are wondering if Egypt is doomed to repeat Algeria’s “black decade,” the period of civil war that followed cancelled elections in 1991 (the military cancelled them after the fundamentalist Front of Islamic Salvation won the first round of voting). There are considerable similarities between the two cases, and Algeria should be a warning to the Egyptian government that violent repression of Islamist opposition doesn’t work. Ironically, the one thing that could prevent Egypt from sliding into full-on civil war is the fact that the Brotherhood had just enough time in office to alienate most of the Egyptian population, whereas the FIS never had a chance to actually govern and fritter away its base of support.

It’s worth noting that there are “liberal” voices in Egypt who don’t see things this way. They condemn the Brotherhood entirely and look at the military coup that overthrew them as having saved Egyptian democracy. They blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence, because they’re all terrorists (evidence?) or because the protesters provoked the military action by being violent (when?) or planning violence (evidence?). Moving forward they envision a brief period of unrest before the government is able to tamp it down. Hence you can find articles with titles like “Do Egypt’s Liberals Care About Democracy?” (SPOILER ALERT: no, they don’t), where scholars try to figure out if it’s possible to be “liberal” and support things like “military coups” because the military is toppling a government that the “liberals” don’t like (SPOILER ALERT: no, it isn’t). The fact is that Egypt’s secular “liberal”/technocratic class, which was completely behind the effort to get rid of Mubarak, lost an election (again, not without legitimate grievances) and dumped its commitment to liberal democracy off the nearest bridge, rolled up inside a rug. This may be the most surprising outcome of all of this, and the most damning for Egypt’s chances of establishing a functional democracy moving forward.

As to how America should respond, things are so muddled that the normally lockstep “Arab Exterminator” firm of McCain, Graham, and Ayotte (formerly McCain, Lieberman, and Graham) is divided: Ayotte wants aid to continue to flow, but Graham and McCain both want it cut off. President Obama’s decision to condemn the violence and cancel joint military exercises, but not to touch our aid to Egypt (at least not yet), reflects the complexity of divesting ourselves of our Egyptian client. The problem with America’s relationship with Egypt, and really with the concept of “Middle Eastern democracy” in general, is the very real chance that our long-term priorities will come into direct conflict with our short-term priorities. Egypt is practically a case study in the subject. America’s long-term interests in Egypt and the region as a whole demand that we stand up for democracy and freedom, which means cutting off aid so as not to support a government that acts anti-democratically; for one thing, a stable democratic Egypt could be a great force for long-term change in the region, and for another, it is always in America’s long-term interests to be seen as “walking the walk” when it comes to standing by our stated ideals. The damage our regional reputation has suffered over our perceived hypocrisy on issues of self-government and freedom is considerable.

All that said, there is a strong case to be made that, however distasteful it may seem, America’s short-term interests are better served with the military in power. Our closest regional allies want our aid to Egypt to continue untouched: Israel because the Egyptian military has since Camp David been a reliable partner for Israel in terms of starving the people of Gaza combating terrorism in Gaza and the Sinai, where the Muslim Brotherhood is closely tied to Hamas and Morsi had decided to stop going after terror groups in the Sinai altogether (which contributed heavily to the breakdown in his relationship with Sisi, by the by); and the Saudis because the monarchy is heavily opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tends to be anti-monarchical. There are economic factors at play as well: our aid to Egypt is mostly in the form of in-kind military aid, where we essentially send them company money that can only be used to buy military hardware from US contractors. Cutting the aid will hurt those contractors, and we’d likely have to pay the balance of their existing contracts anyway. What’s more, we would risk losing Egyptian airspace for our military flights, and would certainly lose the preferred status that our naval vessels enjoy when it comes to using the Suez Canal, and both of those things would make our operations in the Middle East and South Asia far more difficult from a logistical standpoint. For its part, Egypt claims that it’s “reviewing” its relations with the US and Europe after both entities criticized last week’s violence, but that’s a load of garbage; there’s no way Egypt would voluntarily turn off that revenue spigot, particularly not with tourism bottoming out as you’d expect. I wouldn’t expect anything about the US-Egypt relationship to materially change over this.

So where does Egypt go from here? Juan Cole is very pessimistic:

The horrible bloodshed in Egypt on Wednesday marked a turning point in the country’s modern history, locking it in to years of authoritarian paternalism and possibly violent faction fighting. The country is ruled by an intolerant junta with no respect for human life. Neither the Brotherhood nor the military made the kind of bargain and compromises necessary for a successful democratic transition. It is true that some armed Brotherhood cadres killed some 50 troops and police, and that some 20 Coptic Christian churches were attacked, some burned. But the onus for the massacre lies with the Egyptian military. Mohamed Elbaradei, who resigned as interim vice president for foreign affairs, had urged that the Brotherhood sit-ins be gradually and peacefully whittled Way at. His plan was Egypt’s only hope of reconciliation. Now it has a feud.

It’s hard to paint a realistic way forward that’s any sunnier than this. Professor Cole is critical of the Brotherhood; they ran candidates for parliamentary seats that they had previously agreed not to contest so as to allow the inept/disorganized secular parties a chance to have a voice in the government, and then once they won began governing contrary to any sort of consensus-building, democratic ethos. But el-Sisi did everything he could to undermine Morsi’s government, and it’s the military, not the Brotherhood, that has closed the door to any possibility of reconciliation with its brutality and its uncompromising rhetoric. H. A. Hellyer still thinks reconciliation is a possibility, but it will have to come with a commitment to allowing all parties to participate in a revamped democratic process, and will have to include drastic reform of the Egyptian security apparatus into something that actually protects its citizenry without having to kill other citizens to do it. He argues that Al-Azhar’s grand imam may be able to mediate talks, along with international support, but it would require a lot of movement from both sides just to establish the kind of trust needed to give such talks a chance of succeeding.

It may be too late for reconciliation anyway. Even if a political settlement could be reached tomorrow, what sort of country would be left? Egypt is a failed state. In a bit of a cruel twist, Egypt’s economy, already in bad enough shape to have helped topple two leaders (Mubarak and Morsi), is getting worse because of the violence and the state of emergency, which includes curfews. The current government, the thin civilian candy shell covering the military’s chocolate center, has no popular mandate to do anything, let alone take dramatic steps to put the economy back together. It can’t possibly claim a popular mandate to write a new constitution; that won’t stop it from trying, but it just doesn’t have one. As much as the public grew to hate the Brotherhood in office, as they failed every test for competent governance or democratic ideals, a remarkable poll done before last week’s violence found that almost 70% of the Egyptian public had come to oppose Morsi’s removal from office. That poll may be inaccurate in any number of ways, but if it’s not then it’s an incredible statement of how quickly things are deteriorating. At this point, why would the average Egyptian even want a reinstatement of democracy? It’s kind of been a bust in the couple of years since they got it, you know?

It looks more and more like what has been broken here cannot be unbroken, at least not anytime soon. It took Egypt 60 years to finally shake off military rule after its last coup (which, like this one, also had popular support in the beginning). If it takes anything less than that in this case, Egypt should consider itself lucky. In the meantime, the Brotherhood, or whatever replaces it, will keep calling for more protests (or worse), the government will keep cracking down on them, more lives will be lost, and Egypt will spiral further and further away from where its people were hoping it would be by now.


2 thoughts on “This Week in Oppressive Government Violence Egypt: August 18, 2013

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