Who will pick up the pieces in Egypt?

This week's violence in Egypt is a watershed moment in the country's recent history, heralding more political contestation that is likely to be both harsh and unbalanced in favour of the government.

This week's violence in Egypt is a watershed moment in the country's recent history, heralding more political contestation that is likely to be both harsh and unbalanced in favour of the government

It will take time for a more accurate picture to emerge of the events that began on August 14, but it is a day that will go down as a watershed moment, and a very bloody one, in the Egyptian upheavals of the early 21st Century – start date: January 25, 2011; end date: unknown. How events unfolded, the numbers of dead, injured and arrested will all be contested. The official version, that of the post-coup military led regime, will be the one that most Egyptians hear through their own media, a media increasingly reminiscent of the Mubarak era. The crackdown when it arrived was sudden, disproportionate and cruel, not the gradual siege and squeeze foretold in official leaks, which now seem to have been part of an intentional misinformation campaign.

The first thing to acknowledge is that we are in just year three of what will inevitably be a period of transition and upheaval spread across multiple years if not decades. The next period of political contestation will continue to be a harsh and imbalanced one, with brotherhood supporters being targeted nationwide in what is a very unevenly matched struggle, given the resources at the disposal of the regime.

Egyptian society, previously deeply divided, is now in a place of unprecedented polarisation. The key breaking point for the anyway fragile democratic transition was not of President Morsi's doing (with his assumption of new powers, imperfect constitutional process and referendum, or political tone deafness). Rather it came on July 3 when the military deposed a democratically elected president, even if it put in place the sham spectacle of a civilian government (from which Vice-President El-Baradei has now resigned in a rare act of dignity). From that moment on, Egypt's upheaval had entered a new phase. Solidarity protests, crackdowns and mass arrests began across many parts of Egypt from Alexandria and Suez to Aswan. Sinai was already emerging as a lawless space. Egypt's long-spluttering economy will be another victim, even factoring in billions in assistance from the likeminded Gulf dictatorships and resources withheld from within the state bureaucracy during the brief Morsi presidency (such as the power outages that miraculously ceased post-coup).

What were previously three camps with at least a degree of checks and balances – the military, the brotherhood, and the Tahrir protesters – then collapsed into a binary choice, as the majority of the third camp abandoned democracy and embraced a military coup. Since June 30 any common ground whatsoever has proved to be unsurprisingly elusive. Offers of inclusivity towards the Brotherhood on the part of the Coup'ist regime rang very hollow when the deposed president and political leadership were still in detention and with their faith in the democratic process decimated. Democracy for everyone except Islamists doesn't really cut the mustard and there is every sign of this having been a systematic and planned campaign of political persecution against the Brotherhood. After yesterday inclusivity is meaningless.

Defenders of the new regime will no doubt tell us that brotherhood supporters have expressed a willingness to sacrifice themselves and might hope that the pro-Morsi camp's references to martyrdom will spook a Western audience. But a willingness to pay the ultimate price for one's principles (including in this case the legitimacy of an election) is not the same as desiring death, and in other times and other places we have tended to look upon such sacrifice as a noble cause.

We have also been told that democracy and political Islam are incompatible. But the proof from Egypt and elsewhere is far from conclusive, in fact the brotherhood have on balance probably been better democrats than the more Westernised secular political forces. It is the bloody crackdown on the brotherhood which threatens to make the incompatibility argument a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Brotherhood's embrace of the democratic process has evolved over decades of interaction with the political realities of authoritarianism in Egypt and elsewhere, and of lessons learnt from the costs, including personal, of pursuing violent struggle. The current cohort of Brotherhood leaders are in no hurry to abandon politics and embrace violence. 

Still, the more this becomes an existential struggle and a region-wide attempt to definitively crush the Brotherhood by any means, the more difficult it will be to maintain discipline within the ranks. Anyway, there are more radicalised Islamist elements who do not take their orders from the Brotherhood, some organised within hard-line Salafist groups and many critical of the Brotherhood's democratic project, who will view this as their opportunity. An escalation in violence is to be expected.

It would be a monumental error to view al-Sisi as a transitional leader on the path to democracy. The declaration of a state of emergency and imposition of a curfew add to the evidence that we are witnessing a powerful turn away from (not towards) democratic politics. Posters have been appearing of General Al-Sisis and former military ruler General Gamal Abdel Nasser. Think of Al-Sisi as, at best, a more empty-suited version of Nasser – subtract the element of authentic belief in pan–Arabism and social improvement and replace it with loyalty to the vast commercial interests that the military elite now have in Egypt. Sadly this will be music to the ears of some of the coup's leaders and supporters in Egypt and beyond, as any violent radicalism serves their narrative and justifies their actions as fitting an anti-terrorism framing. All of which feeds the disturbing personality cult being built around the leader of the coup, defence minister and commander in chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Given how polarised Egypt is, and the way in which the Egyptian state is feeding anti-Brotherhood sentiment, al-Sisi's standing is likely to be further enhanced by the crackdown.

These are defining days in the Middle East, and Egypt has always been considered the heart of the Arab world. The region is not only threatened by sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia but also by the schisms within Sunni Islam, and the increasing trend towards a more literal, authoritarian and radical Salafist interpretation of Islam. The more moderate, democratic and integrationist wing of the Sunni political camp – represented by decades of Brotherhood maturation centred in Egypt – is suffering a heavy setback as a result of the coup and bloody crackdown in Cairo, with region-wide consequences. This is an attempt, with support from parts of the Gulf, to end the Brotherhood experiment in democratic political Islam.

There is now the looming prospect of a regional politics in which an emaciated group of democratic Islamists argue with an even more emaciated group of secular democrats (not to be confused with the non-democrats at Tahrir who supported the military coup) – on Twitter, in prison, and in exile – over who is more to blame for a political reality in which violent authoritarians slug it out with militant religious obscurantists. Long after the dust settles over the al-Nahda and Rabaa squares and the blood is mopped away, the world of Sunni Islam might still be picking up the pieces.

This piece first appeared on Al Jazeera


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

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