Egypt’s Precarious New Reality

One month after the June 30 demonstrations that led to the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's civilian leaders are becoming increasingly marginal to the broader changes taking place in the country.

al-monitor Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi walk during an anti-army rally that started from their sit-in around the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo, July 30, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.
Bassem Sabry

Bassem Sabry

@Bassem_Sabry

Topics covered

protests, muslim, morsi ouster, morsi, islamists

Jul 30, 2013

One month ago, on June 30, millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand that President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood relinquish power. Only a few days later, they got what they wanted, albeit in a manner that has been, to put it mildly, cause for controversy, locally and internationally. Today, a complex and, in many ways, increasingly unsustainable reality seems to be evolving in Egypt.

A deadly spiral of violence — involving (sometimes-armed) Morsi supporters, (sometimes-armed) opposing civilians, as well as (always-armed) security services, which have used excessive force — is growing and becoming more precarious. Each violent incident generates endless debate over who provoked or initiated the clash, who was armed with what, who did what during the course of the confrontation and whether the police response was justified. There is also real concern about a possible rise in sectarian violence, with a few incidents in particular setting off alarms, including a late-July clash involving a Port Said church.

There is a genuine problem with obtaining "facts" in regard to violent incidents, and for that matter, everything else going on in the country. The private media, which had been increasingly subjected to intimidation and heavy pressure by Morsi and the Brotherhood, has been unabashedly biased — fierce in its anti-Brotherhood rhetoric and coverage of its demonstrations, while staunchly pro-military and pro-new order.

The Islamist broadcast channels remain "suspended," officially because of concerns about the use of inciting and sectarian language, with no clear, announced plan as to how their fates will be determined. In addition, neither Al Jazeera nor the new, makeshift pro-Brotherhood Ahrar 25 channel are unbiased sources. Meanwhile, official sources on both sides are, well, as reliable as official sources can be.

The chances of real political reconciliation appear slimmer with each passing day. The continued violence and instability, which each side blames on the other, are further fueling public opinion against the Brotherhood while hardening the existentialist and standoff mindset within the pro-Morsi camp. The private media, which has completely embraced the new "war on terror" line, is pushing in the direction opposite reconciliation with the Brotherhood, which is now regularly referred to as "terrorist." Citizens calling talk shows regularly espouse this view of the Brotherhood and its supporters as "terrorists," and they often are clear in having no desire for reconciliation while calling for the decisive breaking up of the Rabia and al-Nahda square sit-ins at almost any cost.

Social media discussions are dominated by two extremes — one side wanting to obliterate the Brotherhood to protect Egypt from its supposedly harmful influence versus the other side, Islamists, who see themselves as fighting for a higher cause in an all-out battle for survival against everyone else. The cause of the pro-Morsi camp is not helped by such acts as the occasionally sectarian or otherwise troubling speech on the stage at the sit-in, the accounts of the torture of "infiltrators," such utterly counterproductive actions as blocking roads and bridges and violent acts committed by some of its supporters that have fanned fears and claimed lives, including that of a dear friend's uncle.

Brotherhood leaders and allies are increasingly being legally pursued, the latest being al-Wasat party leaders Abul-Ela Madi and Essam Sultan, who were arrested early on July 29. The prospects of reconciliation are further complicated because all the assorted actors — the police, military, judiciary, media, al-Azhar, the Coptic Church, state bureaucracy as well as to an extent the parties of the National Salvation Front (NSF) — have had confrontations over the past year with the now-deposed Brotherhood regime.

On the other hand, the immense pressure on the Brotherhood and its allies, the fierce rhetoric on the stage in Rabia — most adamant about accepting nothing but the reinstatement of a still-incommunicado Morsi (although he has reportedly received visits from local rights advocates and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief) — the sense of being trapped in a hostile environment and the tragic death toll suffered by the pro-Morsi camp are hardening much of the base against any middle ground. While different sources have suggested that the Brotherhood's leadership is now more open, at least in private, to possible compromises, selling any such deal to the base will prove to be increasingly difficult.

One interesting phenomenon is that Egyptian nationalism is suddenly on the rise again, and quite passionately so, emerging as the main challenger to currently beleaguered Islamism. This nationalism features strong reverence of the country's history and the concept of Egypt as a unique nation that comes before everything else — every other identity and policy goal — while also remaining warm toward pan-Arabism, the Islamic world and Africa as well as their causes. It looks with deep respect upon the Egyptian state and its institutions, recognizing the importance of security, Al-Azhar (and its official form of moderate Islam), the Coptic Church and the military as a backbone and shield of the country. At its core, of course, lie [former Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel] Nasser and [Anwar] Sadat as historic figures. Today, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is emerging as the symbol of this rejuvenated Egyptian nationalism.

The nationwide July 26 "anti-terrorism" demonstrations, called for by Sisi rather than the interim president or prime minister, boosted the rising influence of Egyptian nationalism as a potential new ideological compass, further cementing the bond between the media and the new order in Egypt and proving that the military is the real center of power regardless of what the official arrangements might suggest. More important, however, they showed the powerful personal appeal of Sisi as a national leader. This, in turn, reveals the extent to which the country profoundly wants an exciting leader, something the current crop of liberals, nationalists and leftists have failed to produce over the past year.

On July 26, Sisi posters, and even face masks, were omnipresent in the hands and on the faces of impassioned Egyptians, and they remain, unavoidably hanging around the country. One predominant variant of the posters is that of Sisi and Nasser, and sometimes Sadat as well, next to each other, reinforcing the idea of one line of succession. Speculation is rife about whether Sisi will run for office. While he might not have that in mind at the moment, or might be averse to it, one can neither entirely discount the idea nor the possibility of it becoming a popular demand given the current atmosphere.

In terms of civilian leadership, the heads of the National Salvation Front are becoming increasing irrelevant to the national debate, as their opinions go largely unnoticed. The extent to which they might end up tamed by the military is something to keep an eye on. The extent of Mohamed ElBaradei's influence in the new administration is also the subject of many questions. Whether the NSF will remain in its current form (or at all) is becoming a matter of mounting speculation.

The Salafist Al-Nour party, which had strong influence over the drafting of the constitution and composition of the cabinet, appears to be stuck among a base that is primarily sympathetic toward the pro-Morsi camp — especially following the July 8 deaths outside the Republican Guard's headquarters and the Nasr Road events of July 27 — a leadership that is pragmatic in regard to where Egypt is, and not particularly fond of the Brotherhood, and a nationwide environment that is increasingly hostile toward Islamists in general.

Both the new cabinet and the now-active constitutional amendments committee have largely failed to make headlines. Tamarod (Rebel), the other influential force on the scene, has thus far remained close to the overall direction of the country's new administration, only twice coming out in opposition — over the new constitutional charter (which has not yet been subject to amendment) and over concerns about the potential return of the police state.

There is then the question of what becomes of the January revolution. Public and media commentary that either outright condemns the 2011 event — at times said to be a Brotherhood conspiracy — or appears somewhat regretful about it and the subsequent course of events are becoming increasingly vocal. Both are likely to find a receptive audience among a population that has suffered economically, experienced added insecurity and witnessed instability across the country and around the region.

Worries are now stronger than ever about a return of the police state. Amid a growing pro-security mindset in the country, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim casually announced on July 27 the reconstitution of departments to monitor extremism, as well as political and religious activities, and reinstatement of state security officers relieved of duty following the revolution. There is already a small, possibly expanding "third square" movement opposed to the Brotherhood as well as the prospects of the return of the police state and Mubarak remnants, but reception to it has thus far been hostile.

It has been a tumultuous month for Egypt since June 30. Yet, there is still a chance to move forward with the transition and create a sustainable and new democratic Egypt. I have recently outlined a number of steps toward this end, but the path being taken at the moment by all sides is complicating any such possibility. The first step toward rescuing the situation begins with deescalation and inclusive efforts to avoid situations that might lead to provocations or the loss of more lives. Then, maybe a breakthrough will be possible.

Bassem Sabry  is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. On twitter @Bassem_Sabry.

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