Events in Cairo on Monday will go down as a watershed moment in what is now likely to be decades of upheaval facing Egypt. Egyptian society must have the courage to say “enough”
The crackdown by the military was brutal, overwhelming and inexcusable. It was not the gradual siege and squeeze on the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps that had been signalled, but an all-out assault. The signs point ominously to an escalating, all-consuming struggle. The military has adopted a winner-takes-all approach that gambles on its ability to smother protests and reassert its domination of society, starting with the declaration of a state of emergency. On the other side, the Brotherhood has rallied solidarity protests from Alexandria and the Suez to Aswan, with the Sinai already in almost open revolt. Any prospects for a peaceful, if fragile, democratic transition were undone not by the Brotherhood, but on July 3 when the military deposed Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected president.
Egyptian society is in a place of unprecedented polarisation as the bloody assault on the Brotherhood threatens to take on the inevitability of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The military is trying to prove democracy and political Islam are incompatible by pushing the Brotherhood towards violence, thereby justifying the crackdown. While the Brotherhood leadership is not keen to fall into that trap, it will be hard to keep discipline given the violence unleashed by the regime, and more radical Islamist groups are likely to offer a violent outlet.
A disturbing personality cult is being built around the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to counter the appeal of the Brotherhood. His standing is likely to be embellished by the crackdown. Let’s be clear; Sisi is not positioning himself as a transitional leader on the path to democracy. He is more like an empty imitation of Nasser, whose rule first whetted the military elite’s appetite for power, now married to a controlling role in much of Egypt’s economy.
Why this struggle matters outside Egypt is that the whole Arab world is in turmoil. There is a vacuum that only Egypt can really fill, but that will require a functioning Egypt that is a positive model. That looks more distant than ever. For now, the best hope is that any genuine regime democrats will challenge events, up to and including resignation. Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice-president, has led the way. The West should deploy whatever residual leverage it has to pressure the regime. Democratic Islamists must eschew calls for revenge. Lastly, perhaps there will be those among the rank and file of the military courageous enough to say no and cry “Kifiya: enough”.
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