Egypt: A deadly confrontation on the streets of Cairo
A bloody confrontation on the streets of Cairo is a damaging development, and could be a precursor of worse to come
THE Egyptian army’s action on August 14th was not unexpected. Nor was it unlooked for by those who bore its brunt, the supporters of ousted President Muhammad Morsi. But it was surprisingly savage.
At the time of the July 3rd coup against Mr Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, his supporters set up two camps in Cairo, one a set of tents near the university in the west, the other, larger one in the middle-class district of Nasr City in the east, centred on the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. There the furious refuseniks—most, though not all, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation of which Mr Morsi is a leader—remained throughout the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on August 7th. The camps were noisy, somewhat disruptive to the city’s traffic and increasingly vexatious to the army-led regime that had come to power in the coup.
Government officials promised action against the protesters, who included women and children; they said it would be gentler than the clashes at the time of the coup, which left scores of pro-Brotherhood protesters dead. The police assault on the morning of August 14th, though, backed up by army units, was one of stunning brutality, complete with automatic weapons and sniper fire. The university camp was cleared first, the Nasr City camp second; by the end of the day field hospitals were full of the dead and wounded. As The Economist went to press, the ministry of health had the death toll for the two sites at 464; other estimates put it hundreds higher, and thousands were wounded. Violence flared up as far afield as Alexandria and Aswan (see map). At the end of the day, when most of the country found itself under a curfew, hopes for a peaceful resolution to Egypt’s bitter post-coup polarisation were as ruined as the camps.
All know what they want
At the time of the coup, Egypt’s new rulers promised speedy moves towards a new constitution and new elections. That transition will now be even harder to pull off. The economy, badly buffeted by two-and-a-half years of unrest, is less likely than ever to find a respite; tourists are ever less likely to visit. The majority which wanted Mr Morsi gone, if not necessarily the army returned, is reinforced in its passionate nationalism and loathing for the arrogant piety of the Brothers. The Islamists, for their part, can now add the fire of martyrdom to their grievance of stolen electoral legitimacy. A slide into prolonged strife, possibly even civil war, may be hard to avoid.
A central demand of the protesters who led the country’s February 2011 revolution against the rule of Hosni Mubarak was that laws enforcing a state of emergency be suspended. They are now back, for a month at least. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood targeted government buildings and police stations in several cities on the day the camps were cleared. In the village of Kerdasa near Cairo they lined up four policemen and executed them in a hail of machinegun bullets. At the camps, eyewitness accounts and video footage suggest that small groups of Islamist gunmen returned the security forces’ fire vigorously. Egypt’s interior minister says 43 policemen were killed in the course of the day, 18 of them in Nasr City.
The police and army were not the only targets of Islamist anger. Mobs vented their rage against their Christian compatriots, who had understandably backed the coup. In the southern city of Minya and elsewhere they set fire to some 18 churches; a Jesuit cultural centre and a Franciscan school were torched; shops and homes of Christians were attacked. It was a sharp escalation in an already worsening trend.
Another bad omen was the resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s acting vice-president. Mr ElBaradei, who won the Nobel prize in 2005 for his work as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been critical of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. His principled liberalism has won few friends in a starkly divided country, but his decision to join the army-backed government that replaced Mr Morsi raised hopes that it could be steered on to a moderate course. In his strongly worded letter of resignation, Mr ElBaradei said that his counsel of patience and restraint, and his fears as to what might happen if other paths were followed, had been ignored. “Violence only begets more violence,” he warned.
The violence of August 14th followed moves by the government which worried many of the revolutionaries who took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 with a liberal nation as their goal. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, army chief, minister of defence and de facto head of the government, made a speech on July 24th that called for a mandate from the public to deal with the Brotherhood protests “with whatever force necessary”. On August 13th the list of 27 provincial governors replacing those chosen by Mr Morsi also caused consternation. Two-thirds of them were either army or police generals. A number had glaring records of hostility to the 2011 revolution.
The deaf cries of the country
After last month’s coup, Egypt’s state-owned media, along with much of its independent press, reverted to the role they had played under Mr Mubarak: that of government cheerleader. They took to describing Cairo’s Islamist protesters as either terrorists or the Brotherhood’s paid dupes. While often based in reality, reports of Islamist violence were blown wildly out of proportion. The constant hype amounted to a drumroll for the security forces to “respond to the popular will” and to “cleanse” Cairo’s streets of criminal scum.
Even without this shrill prompting, much of Egypt’s public fervently wishes to see the back of the Brothers and their kind. Despite having won parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential race in 2012, the Brotherhood suffered a collapse in its popularity during the first half of this year. General Sisi’s move to turf it out of power last month was facilitated by a massive outpouring of popular discontent and widespread civil disobedience.
Much of the latest violence across the country has seen ordinary citizens pitted against enraged Islamists. Residents of the areas occupied by Brotherhood protesters in Cairo cheered the police on as they cleared the camps. Opinion polls suggest that, before the violence in the camps, Egypt’s army was, as it has long been, the country’s most popular institution; it will probably remain so afterwards. Its assumption of power raised widespread optimism. By contrast, support for the Brotherhood’s protests appeared to be limited to about 30%.
That level of enduring support, though, means that for Egypt to attempt electoral democracy again, the Brothers need to be part of the process. With voices like Mr ElBaradei’s now stifled within the regime, that coaxing is hard to imagine. Instead there is a danger that the country’s rulers may be tempted to exclude the Brotherhood entirely. Cairo’s more politically sophisticated cafés echo with talk of Algeria two decades back. When that country’s generals cancelled a 1991 election after Islamists won the first round they sparked a decade-long civil war that left somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 dead.
The Brotherhood has been almost entirely excluded from national life before. Egypt’s “deep state”—the powerful security, intelligence and judicial apparatus that grew up unscrutinised in the Mubarak years—excelled at hounding the Muslim Brotherhood. That power base has survived post-revolutionary unrest in pretty good shape, if buried a bit deeper still. Its ties with wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have helped secure the post-coup regime aid to the tune of $12 billion, enough to tide the country over for many months and to make up for any aid America may eventually withhold if, faced with blood on the streets, the Obama administration abandons its insistence that the ousting of Mr Morsi was not a coup, a posture that allows military aid to keep flowing.
The black flight of the crows
The Brotherhood thinks that a faction like that of the so-called éradicateurs in the Algerian army has come to dominate the current regime, dedicated to purging Islamism from the country by whatever means necessary. The Brothers have long feared such a development. During Mr Morsi’s year-long tenure as president they sucked up to and pampered the security establishment; co-opting it was much more central to their plans than finding ways to work with a non-Islamist political opposition they deemed irrelevant. But it did not work, say many now-regretful Brothers. They found themselves subtly undermined and thwarted by Egypt’s courts and interior ministry.
Since the July coup a score of Islamist leaders have been held in prison, with several, including Mr Morsi, charged on patently flimsy grounds. While the government may have seen this as a way to exert pressure for the Brotherhood to call off its protests, many Islamists saw it as a signal that Egypt’s new rulers intended to sideline them for good. This is one reason why Mr Morsi’s faction rejected any suggestion of compromise, insisting instead on demands that were non-starters for their foes: that Mr Morsi should be returned to office and that both the rump, Islamist-dominated legislature and the Islamist-written (but referendum-approved) 2012 constitution be reinstituted.
There were other reasons for their obstinacy. As its spokesmen merrily admitted, the Brotherhood’s abrupt return to beleaguered opposition put them “back in our comfort zone.” Not only did the Brothers no longer have to answer for the policy failures that turned much of the Egyptian public against them. Their determined sit-ins became a powerful symbol of resistance for Islamists throughout Egypt and beyond. The Brotherhood’s high-handedness while in power had alienated many other Islamist factions. Now they felt obliged to rally to Mr Morsi’s cause.
For their inhabitants, who through the spiritually intense fasting of Ramadan included a rolling cast of tens of thousands coming for days or weeks at a time, Cairo’s tent cities seemed a Utopian vision of a perfect Islamic state. To outside visitors they looked quaint and fanatical, as non-stop amplified sermons broadcast an increasingly skewed understanding of events, and primed the faithful to die as martyrs in Mr Morsi’s cause. Despite little evidence that their message resonated much in the rest of Egypt beyond core supporters, the protesters seemed utterly convinced of victory.
In the wake of the brutal police offensive, the Brotherhood’s claims of casualties rose as high as 5,000. Such numbers are not credible; they reflect a need to demonise their persecutors and to justify defeat. The brothers know they will no longer have the bully pulpit of their massively televised protests. In future, Egypt’s generals will have stronger control of the narrative. Meanwhile the threat of a sweeping crackdown looms, made easier by the long periods of detention without trial allowed under the revived emergency laws.
This does not mean plain sailing for Egypt’s deep state. Appalled by the loss of life, and chagrined that their warnings against drastic action were ignored, Egypt’s long-standing allies in the West are now likely to shun General Sisi and his government. Pressure to hasten elections will be brought to bear by many countries (though probably not Saudi Arabia) and will include insistence that the Brothers be somehow accommodated. If the regime wished to accede to such demands, though, it would be hard pressed to do so.
Even before the crackdown, the generals’ transition plans had run into trouble. The composition of a 50-person body meant to speed through a new constitution has roused ire, just as the make-up of a similar body under Mr Morsi did. Islamist factions that have thrown in their lot with the regime balk at the puny representation being offered. They have threatened to veto the process unless their demands for strong Islamist wording are met. Fair elections seem implausible right now.
A price of blood and tears
Many Egyptians assume that much of this will be rendered moot by the backlash of Islamist violence they feel sure will come. Egyptian security forces are already fighting a nearly full-blown insurgency in the lawless north-east corner of Sinai and taking casualties almost every day. The Brotherhood’s allies include radical Islamist factions that mounted a spate of terrorist attacks two decades ago, culminating in the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor in 1997. Some members of the Brotherhood itself may now be prepared to take up arms; the group’s leaders warn that they can no longer control rowdier elements.
All this leads some liberals and centrists to fear that an éradicateur faction along the lines of that which the Islamists fear is already installed will indeed come to power. That would amount to a full-scale counter-revolution, ending what is left of the optimism for a more open society generated by the Arab spring. Perhaps, as so often in the past, Egypt will find a way to muddle through. But the situation, which looked a great deal worse after the coup of 2013 than it did after the somewhat-similar-looking revolution in 2011, now looks even less hopeful. In 2012 one Egyptian commentator suggested that the country’s future was to be either Turkey or Pakistan. On August 14th an Egyptian who tweets under the name Salama Moussa suggested that his countrymen, “in the grip of madness”, saw a yet grimmer dichotomy: Tiananmen Square or Somalia.