Commentary

Egypt's New Normal?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

In Egypt, deadly violence — never too far from the surface as of late — has erupted once again. The second anniversary of the regime-toppling Tahrir Square protests was impetus enough for many to take to the streets to demand further political reform. However, in Port Said this was combined with the announcement that 21 locals were to be executed for their involvement in the deaths of 74 people killed in an out-of-control clash of rival soccer fans in February of last year. Conspicuously absent from those convicted were members of the police, blamed by many for the fatalities. 

For its part, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood has decided to stay away from all demonstrations, attracting criticism for not honoring the martyrs of the January 25 protests. The country remains deeply polarized, with seemingly little hope for a short-term resolution of the grievances of a sizeable portion of the population, especially those that do not support President Morsi or Islamist rule. Meanwhile, Morsi has declared a state of emergency in the affected cities, a move which, to many, smells of Mubarak.

Following the violence and the ongoing protests, President Morsi has called for calm and negotiations among the various factions. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood have also called for calm, even going so far as to hint that such protests were unconstitutional: “Dr. Essam El-Erian, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Vice-Chairman urged political parties and forces to make their position clear with regard to the latest waves of violence and vandalism and lawlessness, since their negative stance seems to indicate a tacit acceptance of those violations....Erian concluded his statements by highlighting the need for demonstrations to commit to the peaceful nature stipulated by the Constitution and the law, stressing that any damage to institutions will be detrimental to Egypt as a whole.”

But as the Peninsula editorial makes clear, it is unlikely that these periodic riots will stop, at least not until the root-causes of the protesters’ displeasure are properly addressed: “There is a painful sense of déjà vu about the events in Egypt today. People are going through more of the same with deadly consequences....The riots over the court verdict are not directly linked to the political crisis, but they are the outcome of the chaos and instability gripping the country. In the past few days, the country has been witnessing a spasm of violence against Morsi which shows no signs of abating....Egyptians and their rulers must realize that freedom will remain an empty shell if deprivation and chaos prevail, which is exactly what is happening in the country. As more blood is spilled, positions are hardening, and a consensus becomes elusive.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is also taking fire for staying on the sidelines. Sarah Carr, an Egypt Independent journalist and blogger, argues it is better that way, since the Brotherhood never really played a crucial role during the Tahrir Square protests. Still, she is worried that the protests lack real direction at the moment: “The violence of yesterday’s protests, especially in Suez, is an articulation of a genuine seething, anger at this incompetent regime whose leader sees fit to address a nation in flux on Twitter at 2 am. But acts of civil disobedience — traffic blocking and Metro stoppages — are unlikely to go down well with the majority of Cairenes, who like general publics everywhere, only want a quiet life. This is particularly true given that there has been aimlessness about some protests such as the largely ignored sit-in in Tahrir Square, a lack of vision, which if it hasn’t lost protesters support certainly hasn’t gained them new followers.”

Aimless or not, there is no denying that the mood in Egypt has turned sour. As the Khaleej Times editorial remarks, after two years of stop-go reforms, “Egyptians are in no joking mood, as they wish to see the objectives of the revolution that overthrew four decades of authoritarianism realize into a perfect democratic and accountable system....This is the time for the government to reach out to the people and initiate a dialogue with forces that are not represented in the parliament. Morsi should hear out as to what ails these protesters who keep on returning on Tahrir Square and in the swatches as far as Suez.”

But Mohammad Salah is not sure the current crisis can be resolved through negotiations. In an op-ed for Al Hayat, Salah believes the violence has reached a point of no return: “The Egyptian crisis will not be resolved through ‘national dialogue’ that would bring those in power and the opposition together around one table. Indeed, the movement in the street is developing much more rapidly than any dialogue, whatever its form or its outcome....The Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest mistake is that it hurried up when it should have slowed down, and hastened when its duty should have been to take its time. It found power in its hands and rushed to monopolize it, despite being a group that had always adopted policies of endurance. It took the Brotherhood more than 80 years to reach the seat of power in the largest Arab country, and when it ‘succeeded,’ it failed. If only it had been patient, what it sought after would have come on its own.”

The view that the Muslim Brotherhood has acted too quickly and too rashly in consolidating its hold on Egyptian politics is not shared by everyone. In fact, there are those who think Morsi and his allies have not gone far or fast enough. This view was made amply clear in an Asharq Alawsat interview by Mohamed al-Zawahri, the brother of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and a founding member of the Salafist Jihadist group in Egypt: “In our view, the political situation in Egypt is contrary to the laws of God, therefore we are calling for correct and legitimate means, which requires discipline, to be used to implement Islamic Sharia law. From our view, the best way to achieve national reconciliation is via the full implementation of Islamic Sharia law....We are of the view that democracy contravenes the True Religion of Islam, as this places sovereignty outside of God’s hands, and so we reject democracy and all its mechanisms and tools.”

Moreover, there are those who argue, like here in the Saudi Gazette, that the Egyptian opposition must not forget that “in truth Morsi was elected fair and square as president. The Brotherhood has also used the ballot box to make huge gains in parliament and in passing the constitution....The belief that the ballot box was the panacea for all Egypt’s ills has been shaken drastically. Egyptians have learned, and are still learning, that democratic practice is a process and is not just elections....The end result two years after the uprising: At least half the country is asking what went wrong, while the other half believes Egypt is on the right track. It is this tug of war which has created Egypt’s deep polarization and fissures.”

Such arguments, however, are offensive to others, like The National’s Maria Golia, who sees a deterioration of human rights conditions in Egypt: “Egypt's Islamist government is intent on portraying itself as the revolution's ‘protectors’ given the climate of instability. This is particularly galling to its opponents, since civilians continue to be tried in military courts and, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, more journalists have been prosecuted for insulting the president during Mr Morsi's first 200 days in office than during Mubarak's entire 30-year term....Many believe this is all part of the revolution — and the cycles of calm and outrage, accusations and flawed justice — that began two years ago. But this pattern has kept people anchored in the moment, unable to look to a future that the revolution was meant to bring about.”

Unfortunately, as Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Alhomayed suggests, with deadly violence on the rise, few remain upbeat about the prospects of a quick solution to the stand-off between the opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood: “The events on the second anniversary of Egypt’s 25 January revolution suggest that whether you are a skeptic or an optimist, Egypt is in for a long night. The opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule is now genuine and deep-rooted, and increasing day by day. This is despite all the attempts in Egypt to clear the air, whether through the media, politics or even through intimidation.”


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