Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 3 – 10 January 2014

Conflicts Forum

Egypt: Even before the military coup that overthrew President Morsi, it was plain that Egyptian society was fracturing – and fracturing in a profound, and perhaps irrecoverable way.  A gathering (which CF attended) of Egypt’s principal political strands, (Islamist and secular/liberal) at that time, simply was incapable of communicating amongst themselves: barrages of verbal heavy artillery were fired across the room, from one sector of Egyptian society to another, aiming to land a crippling hit. Chests heaved with emotion; the psychological states were taut as crystal, the lengthy shouted perorations made no sense, and contained no grain of wisdom.

Compromise had absented itself, and democracy clearly was made unavailable in this tumult of passion. At that precise moment, it was the secular/liberals and Christians who expressed terrible existential fears for their survival: they were about to be politically and culturally overwhelmed by the Islamists, their secular way of being outlawed, their political relevance excised, they felt and believed.  The Christians were particularly bitter.  The Christian West had made a historic error: obsessively focused on the security of Israel, the West had allied itself with radical Sunni groups, in order to weaken perceived threats to Israel (Hizbullah and Iran); but it was to the Christians of the Middle East would fall the lot of having pay the price for this misguided firing-up of Sunni Islam, they complained.  They rehearsed the figures for Christian migration from the region. What rubbed salt into this festering wound was that the Christians and liberal/seculars saw no prospect of any rescue forces rushing to break their Islamist siege.  No France, no Britain, no America - for the first time in centuries – would sail to their succor.  They would be left to stew (or emigrate) from the Islamist takeover.

Imagine then their elation, when at the eleventh hour, when all had seemed lost, a deus ex machina appeared: Gulf States engineered an army coup to ‘clear and destroy’ (in the military jargon) the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt.  The tables were turned.  Militant secular/liberals hovered several feet above the ground in ecstasy.  General Sisi was lauded (uncriticly) as the new Saladin/Nasser/Sadaat.

Immediately after the coup, Generally Sisi made all the politically correct noises: “transition”, “civil democracy”, and “inclusiveness”.  The words were one thing, but his administration’s behavior was, and has been, quite another.  Rather than ‘transition’ to democracy, it seems that ‘the people’ will require Sisi to become President by popular acclaim, rather than embrace “civil democracy”.  It seems too by passing two new laws, namely the protest law and the activation of the broad anti-terrorism law, Sisi will kill two birds with one stone:  Its prime purpose being to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and to potentially criminalise its many supporters; but secondly, it effectively reincarnates the (hated) ‘state of emergency’ provisions in new flesh, to allow the security establishment to eliminate any resistance to the junta.  Again, this is being done through the ‘peoples’ mandate: as Al-Watan, a nationalist daily, wrote last week: "From the people to [armed forces chief] El-Sisi: We granted you the mandate … and we will slit the terrorists' throats." Another paper, Al-Youm Al-Sabaa, carried a similar banner reading: "the people demand the execution of the Brotherhood."  Although these two laws primarily are aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, their combined effect is sufficiently broad to encompass and to stifle the first stirrings of secular/liberal unease too.  A number of seculars (very small in comparison to the MB arrests) recently have been detained for criticizing the junta (for its lack of revolutionary purpose).  We expect, as liberal disillusion with Sisi and the regime sets in, more secular/liberal detentions will follow.

In short, in Egypt the Gulf orchestrated counter-revolution to the Arab unrest of 2011, now spear-headed by General Sisi, is being taken to the limit of full throttle repression. As Khalil Al-Anani comments, the proscription of the Muslim Brotherhood strengthens "the idea of a common enemy, an existential threat to the state and society". Another reason for the declaration, he continues, "is to mobilize the public to vote “yes” on the constitution, which the interim government views as a way to solve its lack of legitimacy …  The closing of public space to any protest action is justified by the claim that it is counter-terrorism … and designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist group closes the door to any future rapprochement between the Brotherhood and revolutionary groups".

Not only is a substantial portion of the Egyptian people potentially being criminalized (for the crime of uttering any verbal or indirect support for the Muslim Brotherhood – an offense, punishable by five years imprisonment), but vigilantes are being encouraged by Egyptian media figures to torch known MB homes, and to destroy their businesses.  Hotlines have been set up by which the public can denounce persons whom they suspect to be sympathetic to the MB.  The media incitement against the "terrorists" is everywhere.  Suspected ‘Brothers’ are being abducted, tortured and killed. The initial societal fracture that we mentioned earlier, is opening into a chasm.

What will be the response?  In Egypt everything passes slowly, but some pointers are clear.  The Muslim Brotherhood has gone underground. Its leadership (the Shura and Office of Guidance) has either been arrested or are in hiding.  The movement is surviving by falling back on its cell system of seven or eight persons meeting in cell leader’s home.  Where this system, which has sustained the movement through past repressions, is under great stress is in the difficulty of cell leaders to maintain communications  between each other, and up the cell chain to whatever constitutes the remains of leadership.

The older generation of the Muslim Brotherhood do not want outright war with Sisi: they know they would lose.  Instead their strategy is to maintain resistance in the form of ‘flash’ demonstrations (“We have no option: Sisi has backed us into a corner”) and wait for the junta to discredit itself and for the economy to fail.  The MB know that tough economic times are coming, and believe in principle that they need to do nothing, beyond awaiting and capitalizing on the junta’s (inevitable, in their view) fall into popular disfavor.  At the same time, the MB is working amongst its supporters in the army to fan military discontent with its higher command. (a senior Russian political figure says that the Russian estimate is that up to 70% of the lower ranks of the army are opposed to the direction being taken by the army leadership).

This ‘safe option’ however, is neither working, nor is it satisfying the MB’s young members.  The non-violence policy of the MB is not providing the political inoculation for the movement, for which it might have hoped.  The recent bomb attack in Mansour, which claimed the lives of 16 police, was almost certainly not perpetrated by the MB (a Sinai Salafist group has plausibly claimed responsibility), yet the MB immediately was held responsible – and the government-supporting media have successfully persuaded a majority of Egyptians that the MB indeed were the ‘terrorists’ responsible for this act.

And the youth, who have lost friends to police gunfire in the major demonstrations, will not have it.  For them, the lesson of the coup is that the MB were naïve.  They believe that the MB should have ‘burnt the system’ when they took over.  The army should have been purged, and the ‘deep state’ thoroughly destroyed.  This, they believe is the lesson of Algeria, of Hamas in 2006, and now President Morsi. Some - how many cannot be said - will drift towards the violent revolutionary Islamic movements, who espouse the al-Qae’da ‘idea’.  This trend will not suddenly explode, but will gather force over time – most probably drawing armaments and fighters from Libya, and disseminating itself further into north Africa.

The case of the Salafists is more complicated. Funded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, the leadership has largely stood-by the junta, showing a remarkable ‘flexibility’ over constitutional issues in respect to Islam. But they too have lost the younger members. Many of these Salafists see the security forces attack on the Brothers and President Morsi’s ouster not as an attack on the MB per se; but an attack on Islam itself.  This section of Salafists therefore has turned against Saudi Arabia – as well as Sisi.

Finally, parts of Egypt (Sinai, parts of Alexandria and Suez) are becoming the Egyptian Idlib – under the ‘control’ (there is no good word to describe the ambiguous ‘web’ of intimidation exercised) by jihadist groups of various hues — all of whom are fiercely hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding them as apostates.

Where will this take Egypt?  The problem is that whilst Sisi has succeeded in creating a cult following amongst major sections of the population in crushing so-called ‘terrorists’ (the MB), this is an insufficient solution to the deep economic problems facing the country. Whilst the Gulf States have given (although not all are donations) some $12 billion, most experts believe that Egypt needs more than $50 billion to keep afloat. Some 43% of the population is desperately poor (earning less than $2 per day family income, and many of these were former beneficiaries of MB charitable works, a support which has now been cut away).  What is the vision that Sisi will offer: IMF style ‘liberal’ economic reforms – with nearly half the population on less than $2 per day?  Is Arab nationalism (neo-Nasserist in style) viable today?  This seems hardly tenable.  There is not the money for it. And Arab nationalism entered a long decline following the 1973 War, from which it has not recovered.

What can the Muslim Brotherhood offer by way of a vision? A return to Da’wa and charitable works? This, too, stands discredited. Neither too will the MB passively awaiting Egypt’s economic collapse answer the hunger of those looking for some ‘solution’ to their many miseries, and an uplifting vision for the future. The only vision that seems to be resonating on the street is the Salafist recital of simple ‘certainties’ to which people can desperately cling, at a time of turmoil and dissolving order. Paradoxically, at this level, we see the younger Salafists and MB converging around a Salafist worldview, and emerging as perhaps the only real beneficiaries to this state of affairs.

The West has taken a short-term view: ‘We have little influence; we treat it as a purely internal matter (unlike events in Syria), and support Sisi as holding the only instrument (the army and security services) capable of providing  (ill termed) ‘security’”. But will brutal repression bring the West ‘security’ in the long term?  Is not the lesson from the collapse of Sykes-Picot that we are witnessing around the region precisely that it does not?  Beware creating ‘new al-Qaedas’, is the warning.  Egypt seems set to fracture further, and to become more violent in confronting a resurrection of the ‘Arab system’ in the form of General (likely President) Sisi. 

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