Will Egypt Collapse?

Following new rounds of sectarian violence in Egypt, Mohammad Shuman argues that all sides must take serious steps to achieve unity and save the country from collapse.

al-monitor Islamist protesters and activists from the "Ahrar movement" hold a banner of detained fellow demonstrators during a protest against the Interior Ministry and the Brotherhood in front of the attorney general's office in Cairo, April 11, 2013. The demonstrators say the detainees were arrested during protests outside Mansoura College on April 9. .

Topics covered

us-egyptian relations, protests, muslim brotherhood, islamists, egypt, christians

Apr 11, 2013

There are numerous warnings coming from multiple sources indicating that Egypt — both the state and the society — is sliding toward the unknown. The economic and political situation is going from bad to worse. Moreover, the new government is not seeing the gravity of this threat and is not dealing with this deterioration as if it were a crisis. Instead, it is making shallow justifications regarding internal and external plots against the Islamic project, all the while accusing the opposition and the media of receiving foreign funding and working according to the whims of foreign agendas and interests.

This Islamization is raising concerns from the National Salvation Front (NSF) and other civil forces, from Salafists and “former” jihadists who were allies of the Brotherhood, as well as from many ordinary citizens who have come to realize that being religious, doing charity work and calling for reform is totally different from being efficient and capable of managing the state.

This can be described as a decline in the credibility of the Muslim Brotherhood, and perhaps in the credibility of all the Islamist groups. Eight months into President Mohammed Morsi’s term, these groups have failed to provide an ethical political model that takes into account the interests of the nation and the people and that allows all Egyptians to participate in the revival of their country, as per the Brotherhood's famous slogan: “Participation, not dominion.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s rapid decline in popularity and the prevalence of a rhetoric that is critical and hostile toward the Brotherhood has affected all political Islamic groups and has encouraged liberals and leftist forces as well as former President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents are unable to cooperate and unify, as it is difficult to bring together the NSF with supporters of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq and those of Mubarak. The problem is that none of these opponents are suggesting alternatives or a clear road map capable of convincing a desperate majority that is sick of instability, the high cost of living, unemployment and deteriorating living conditions. This drives large segments of workers, poor people and marginalized citizens … to wage their battles to attain pay rises and services away from the political scene. Still, this prevents civil and Islamist groups from controlling the street, as social protest movements have reached new areas and classes.

The fact that the street has greatly distanced itself from both the opposition and the government paves the way for an uprising and forebodes random acts of violence — be they regional, sectarian or tribal. Security reports say there have been open confrontations and clashes between villages or tribes in the countryside and a marked increase in retaliatory incidents, crimes, armed robbery, roadblocks and sexual harassment.  These aspects of security chaos and mass violence can be divided into three categories.  First is the use of sophisticated weapons smuggled from Libya or manufactured locally; second is the audacity certain groups have shown in violating the law and confronting police; and third is the spread of a culture of discrimination against women and Copts.

The problem is that this mess is likely to increase, despite the growing aspects of religiosity or the pro-forma Islamization of society as a result of the excruciating economic and social crisis and the absence of hope and confidence among a majority of Egyptians about the possibility of the return of the rule of law.

In this context, sectarian events have recently exploded in the city of al-Khusus, thus representing new forms of intolerance, violence and sectarian clashes after the revolution. The danger is that these events moved to the cathedral in the heart of Cairo, as unidentified men — according to security reports — attacked the Coptic papal headquarters during the funeral for victims of the al-Khusus clashes. This is a new and very serious development. Add to this the siege imposed by Al-Azhar university students on the headquarters of Al-Azhar’s grand imam last week in protest against food poisoning suffered by campus students.

The circles of violence and chaos are expanding. They have reached Al-Azhar’s imam and the head of the Coptic church for the first time, thus unprecedentedly challenging the two oldest religious institutions in Egypt.

Some believe that the Brotherhood is seeking to overthrow Al-Azhar and take advantage of the poisoning accident to achieve this goal. Some conspiracy-minded people even accused the Brotherhood of masterminding the poisoning incident!

For its part, the Coptic church declared that it supports the Al-Azhar imam maintaining his position. The new Coptic pope announced that the church is no longer a political player or a guardian of the Christian community and its political participation. This is a new position that does not appeal to some in the new government who want to deal with the Copts as a community, not as citizens.

Finally, there are those who claim there is a scheme afoot to foment crises to divert citizens’ attention away from their problems by fabricating sectarian clashes.

With all due respect to these theories, I think that the absence of political and security control over the streets and the spread of violence and chaos explain the Al-Azhar siege and the attack on the cathedral. This also means that an explosion of social or sectarian problems could occur at any time and in any place in Egypt amid a tense atmosphere, a revolutionary situation plagued by chaos and social, sectarian and regional conflicts.

Egypt is divided between revolution and chaos. It is divided at the political and social levels, and political forces have been unable to contain and guide the movement of the street. They have failed to achieve consensus and joint action, as neither the new government nor the opposition has been able to settle the situation in its favor or vanquish the other side. Both have failed to achieve the dreams that inspire them and which could allow them to make progress toward complete victory.

Therefore, a balance of weakness describes the relationship between the government and the opposition; neither side is able to settle the situation in its favor or draft a new social contract to achieve stability and legitimacy.  There is no doubt that the absence of decisiveness is draining both sides (the government and opposition) and weakening their negotiating power with the army and with regional and international powers regarding many issues.

Suffice it to note here that the government's need for the IMF loan and foreign aid is putting it under US and European pressure. At the same time, there are influential opposition sectors that believe that change begins by convincing Washington to abandon the Muslim Brotherhood and its idea of giving moderate Sunni Islam a try in order to further US interests and lay siege to Shiite Iran.  Also, the majority of the civilian forces have become more tolerant of military intervention as a way to protect the civil side of state and national security!

The government and the opposition's recognition of the importance of the foreign factor, and their competition for it, falls in the framework of their attempt to gain the support of the army. There is a strong relationship between Washington and the army, which was armed and trained as a result of US military aid to Egypt; the army remains independent, an important factor should the situation deteriorate and affect national security. This does not imply a coup on democracy but rather puts pressure on the regime to reach an understanding or reconciliation with the opposition to ensure stability. This pressure may bear fruit, particularly because of US statements and European efforts — which are more advanced than the US desires — embodied by [European Union foreign affairs chief] Catherine Ashton's meetings with a number of leaders from the NSF.

Egypt is in danger and there are many threats that range from economic collapse and political failure to foreign and regional interference. For their part, the Arabs are busy with their internal problems and issues related to Syria, Iraq and Iran. It looks like they … have [avoided] getting into details involving Egypt that could expose them to problems, at least in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is especially true given that President Morsi warned the brothers [Arabs] against intervention!

Therefore, I think that the solution will always be in the hands of the Egyptians themselves, and here I do not bet on the rationality of the Brotherhood or the opposition and their ability to engage in dialogue, negotiation and compromise. There must be, however, an honest broker, because the climate of polarization and political conflict has distanced them from political wisdom. Moreover, it has prevented them from perceiving the dangers of the future in a serious manner and with a sense of responsibility, knowing that these dangers may include a sectarian civil war.

I propose that some independent figures, who have remained uninvolved in the conflict and political polarization, should launch an initiative for dialogue between leaderships representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition and the Salafists, in order to agree on a document that would outline the following:

First, to clearly inform the public of the threats to Egypt and to warn the people against intolerance, hatred and violence.

Second, to condemn all forms of violence in the political conflict and to rely on peaceful means to express one’s opinion.

Third, to resort to elections and respect their results, while seeking to avoid fraud and ensure a fair electoral process, and to take the necessary steps to this effect, including amending the parliamentary electoral law.

Fourth, to confirm national unity and the need for coexistence on the basis of mutual respect of one another, regardless of one’s ideas and political stances. All individuals should be allowed to participate in political and social life pursuant to the constitution and law. Necessary measures should be taken to eliminate the sources of intellectual extremism and intolerance in educational establishments, houses of worship and the media.

Fifth, to find ways to increase the representation of Copts in the political system, especially given that they have been highly marginalized and have suffered greatly under the new rule.

This suggested dialogue differs from Al-Azhar’s declaration to end violence because it calls for negotiations and political debates, which are allowed only to a certain degree within a prominent religious institution such as Al-Azhar.

In the same vein, Al-Azhar ought to stay away from the political arena during this critical phase and exercise its national role without being involved in partisan debates regarding the ongoing violence carried out by police and protesters, among other disputed issues.

Perhaps the civilian aspect of the proposed dialogue, which will be necessarily attended by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, could help break the barrier of hostility between the government and the opposition and build bridges, trust and mutual understanding. This is especially true as this proposed dialogue is likely to draw the support of Arab and European countries, which wish to save Egypt from looming collapse and internal fighting.

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