Deeply Divided Egypt Cannot Be Fixed The recent bloodshed underscores the split between secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Only bad options for the military rulers

By Paolo von Schirach

August 15, 2013

WASHINGTON – Did the Egyptian military totally misunderstand the actual political balance of forces when it decided to arrest President Mohammed Morsi, this way putting an end to the very first democratic experiment in modern Egyptian history? Let’s review what happened. A deeply divided Egypt emerged from the post-Mubarak aftermath. There is a secular, urban relatively modern segment, symbolized by the young people who risked their lives in the epic days of the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations. But then there is also a rural, conservative, traditional and religious Egypt. This is an Egypt that looks at the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood as its model. The two, we found out later on, do not blend. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood won the first democratic battle. They won the elections, and they molded the new Constitution. Their victory was not a landslide; but it was a victory nonetheless.  

Incompetent Morsi

However, newly elected President Morsi did not try to co-opt the other side. On the contrary, he proved to be both arrogant and incompetent, a bad mix for a country that needed stability, reconciliation and a path to economic growth. Morsi demonstrated to have despotic aspirations, while the country’s economy, already shaken badly by the prolonged 2011 anti-Mubarak rebellion, was rapidly sinking.

Morsi’s inability to turn the country around gave the secular opposition the courage to organize massive rallies. They did not just vent grievances. They wanted him out. He was a bad leader. He should go. All very well, except that, unlike despised dictator Hosni Mubarak, Morsi had been elected. And therefore, in principle, he should have been allowed to serve the rest of his term. But no, the enormous crowds gathered once more in Tahrir Square and all across Egypt wanted him out –immediately. The situation was turning into chaos, while the country’s economy seemed to be on the edge of implosion.

Here come the generals

And so, here comes the military again. In 2011 the generals had decided that Mubarak, one of their own, should go.  And now General Abdul Fattah Sissi, head of the armed forces,  re-entered the scene with a clear warning to Morsi: either you find a compromise with your opponents, so that chaos will end, or we shall have to take over.

Very stupidly, Morsi did not get the message. Or may be he over estimated the level of political support that he and the Brotherhood still enjoyed. May be he thought that the generals were just bluffing. In any event, Morsi refused to negotiate a new arrangement that might have diminished his powers. And so the military deposed him and arrested him, this way putting an end to the first Egyptian elected government, such as it was. A bad precedent.

The military did have a point. Morsi was a would-be despot. His authoritarian moves created a massive opposition movement. On top of that, he was incompetent. The country was descending into chaos. The economy was in ruin, crime was rampant. Something had to be done. Indeed.

The military miscalculated

The problem is that the military also miscalculated. They under estimated the strength and the resilience of the Brotherhood rank and file. Morsi’s supporters simply refused to go away. And they refused to compromise. They wanted what the military could not deliver, that is Morsi back as President.

This led to a dangerous impasse. The military had hoped that the interim civilian government they had appointed could strike a deal with the more malleable segments of the Brotherhood, so that some kind of national unity government could be formed. The same interim leaders would then amend the Constitution making it more secular and the they would lead the country into new elections. After that, the military could go back to the barracks with the gratitude of the people.

Martyrdom for the Brotherhood

Well , it did not turn out this way. The Muslim Brotherhood faithful did not budge. They continued with their defiant  street demonstration. And so the military, after some hesitation, decided to act, in large part because it needed to reaffirm its authority. And so a huge bloodbath ensued. The defiant Brotherhood militants opposed the armed forces and got themselves killed, in very large numbers.

No easy return to civilian rule

So here we are. Egypt is and will continue to be under a military dictatorship for quite a long time. It is now clear that it will be totally impossible to bring all relevant political factions under the umbrella of the interim civilian government. In the meantime, America and others who were hoping in a successful and quick transition leading to a secular government in Cairo now are now truly embarrassed. They have essentially endorsed the anti-Morsi coup; and now they are on the side of  the generals who ordered a massacre. Try and step away from this hopeless situation.

Going forward, there is no solution. Egypt is split in two. There are the urban, more educated, younger citizens who would like Egypt to look more like Europe. And then there are the traditional, devout Muslims who do not like modernity that much. The sad truth is that the two sides cannot find common ground.

Democracy assumes shared values

Democracy is a great goal. But democracy is about dialogue, give and take and compromise. And this is possible only assuming a solid common ground of shared values and belief in the legitimacy of the system. Such common ground does not exist in Egypt. Farther afield, it is obvious that it does not exist in Iraq, now in the grips of sectarian violence. And forget about Syria where a civil war is under way; or messy Libya where there are Regional splits and a very ineffective central government.

When we were watching the unfolding Arab Spring we were certainly not predicting this bloody second act. Hard to say how this plot will unfold. But there is no indication that these tortured societies will soon find their own peaceful way to modernity.




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