Egypt risks meltdown in the wake of such needless army brutality

The latest massacres have suppressed hopes of unity and will encourage radicalism

By Shashank Joshi  15 Aug 2013

Last month’s coup by the Egyptian army was supposed to have saved Egypt. The deposition of President Mohammed Morsi was, it was argued, the only way that the country could be saved from a vortex of political polarisation, repression and violence. US Secretary of State John Kerry – speaking, ironically, from Islamabad, the spiritual home of the popular coup – took this line, insisting that the army was “in effect, restoring democracy” and preventing a “descent into chaos”.

Critics of the coup, including the present writer, argued that, although Mr Morsi had indeed shown contempt for constitutional democracy and deserved to be held accountable for this, it would worsen rather than resolve Egypt’s political crisis.

We warned that the Egyptian military was, and remains, a predatory institution, which had been subverting the elected government from the sidelines and was interested only in its own economic and political privileges. It had misgoverned Egypt and repeatedly abused its citizens during the unloved junta that ruled after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, and would not now prove capable of uniting the warring factions. All this and more has proved correct, and the country’s political future is consequently looking very dark indeed.

We should be clear: what occurred two days ago in Cairo was a massacre, directed mainly at one political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the latest in a series of such massacres perpetrated by Egypt’s security forces. Throughout July, all the Brotherhood’s leaders were arrested on spurious charges, the elected president was kidnapped, and scores of pro-Morsi protesters were killed. So this week’s crackdown should surprise no one. Nor should the callous dishonesty of the new government, preposterously claiming that it used only tear gas. It is telling that journalists were detained and tortured, outrages typical of regimes that fear the truth getting out.

It is beyond doubt that Mr Morsi’s supporters employed violence too, including deplorable attacks on churches and police stations. But neither this, nor the undoubted abuses of power perpetrated by the Brotherhood’s administration over the past year, can excuse what has been an extraordinary display of indiscriminate state violence.

It is important to dispel the notion, popular in some Western circles, that the Egyptian army is an unsavoury but dependable protector of minorities against radical Islam. This is unadulterated nonsense, and believing it requires airbrushing from history such events as its slaughter of 28 Christians in October 2011. Christians are at real risk in Egypt today, and Islamist thugs bear much of the blame, but to cast the generals in the role of saviour is perverse.

The massacre is both a personal and political tragedy – personal because more than 700 people have died, including several journalists and the teenage daughter of a Muslim Brotherhood leader; and political because the violence came at such a pivotal moment.

Although the gulf between the Brotherhood and the army-backed government was huge, there was hope of compromise brokered by the US and EU, helped by pro-Brotherhood Qatar and the pro-army UAE. “We had a political plan that was on the table, that had been accepted by the other side [the Brotherhood],” said the EU envoy. Knowing full well that its assault would snuff out those hopes – and possibly for that very reason – the army made a conscious, cruel and fateful decision.

The army is adamant that the Brotherhood are “terrorists” who cannot be allowed a share of power. But there is no guarantee that the Brotherhood would not perform creditably in free and fair elections, despite the irreversible damage done to their reputation by Morsi’s farce of a government. If this outcome is to be prevented, future elections will have to be at least somewhat rigged. In fact, the Brotherhood may face a level of repression considerably exceeding the clampdown it faced in the latter years of Mubarak’s dictatorship. The return of emergency laws this week, variants of which applied for decades before the 2011 revolution, is also an ominous sign.

Nor is it clear that the Muslim Brotherhood will bother with further talks. Mohammed el-Beltagy, the senior figure whose daughter was among those killed, called for police and army troops to mutiny, and for his supporters to take to the streets. But even if the group was inclined to behave responsibly – improbable enough – locking up its upper echelons can only mean that it will become less disciplined, less coherent and less predictable. Bodies on the street, in all senses of that term, are now the currency of power.

The violence extends far beyond Cairo, and an already fraught security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, awash with arms and jihadists, will worsen. The likelihood of radicalisation is growing across all parts of the broad Islamist spectrum: this is a propaganda coup for al-Qaeda. Indeed, some are wondering whether this was the point all along: to lure the Brotherhood into violent resistance from which they will not be able to recover politically – a strategy of unfathomable stupidity.

Some who once cheered the coup are suitably chastened. Vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader who was drafted in to give this shabby government the appearance of national unity, resigned on Wednesday. This strips some of the civilian veneer away from what is effectively army rule.

But not everyone has learnt their lesson. The coalition of liberal and secular groups that ElBaradei notionally represented, the National Salvation Front, gave its full-throated endorsement to the crackdown. Its reaction exemplified a major problem with Egypt today: the cowardice, incompetence and myopia of many of its so-called liberals. ElBaradei and his political allies have played a dangerous game, relying on the army to do their dirty work in lieu of engaging in the rigours of competitive politics. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, they have conjured up powerful forces that they cannot now control.

Britain and the US were correct to condemn the violence. This is the least they could do after their disgracefully evasive responses to the coup. But the bigger question is whether America will back up its words with a stick: the threat of withdrawing the $1 billion it annually gifts to the Egyptian military.

There are plenty of excuses to do nothing. After all, this is an extraordinarily sensitive time in the region, with fragile talks resuming between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel, delighted at the return of devils it knows and eager to protect its own security cooperation with Egypt’s army, has lobbied hard for Egypt to keep its cash.

Yet the White House is now blind to several truths. American vacillation has left the US isolated from all of Egypt’s political factions – each of which is persuaded that Washington is secretly backing the other. The army’s needless brutality is now the primary cause of Egypt’s political disintegration, whatever obvious culpability the Brotherhood bore previously. Civil conflict in Egypt would inflame all those regional interests in whose name American aid flows. And Egypt’s generals should now be shown that actions have consequences.


Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute


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