It would seem that the violent confrontations resulting from the state’s attempts to disperse the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests at Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque and Nahda Square have become inevitable. But, will these confrontations end the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, or take it to new levels — more violent ones maybe? And, what are the practical alternatives to dispersing those two sit-ins? Is dispersing the protests truly necessary? Such a question no longer has a place in the public’s opinion. For most Egyptians, the question has become, "When will the sit-ins be dispersed?"
When will the sit-ins be dispersed?
An opinion poll conducted by the Baseera Center for Public Opinion Research has shown that only 20% of Egyptians sympathize with the protests currently underway by supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi, compared to 71% who do not sympathize; while 9% said that they could not form an opinion about the matter. Upper Egypt showed the highest level of sympathy with 27% of respondents expressing sympathy for the protests, while only 15% of respondents from Lower Egypt sympathized with the sit-ins; and sympathizers from urban governorates numbered 16%. Another opinion poll conducted by the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies revealed that a majority of Egyptians — 63% — favored the dispersal of the protests immediately, with most of them favoring a nonviolent resolution. Approximately 30% of those polled considered the protesters to be terrorists, and 27% said that some were peaceful and some were terrorists; which means that 57% of respondents think that there are terrorists present at the protest sites. So, few Egyptians believe that the protests are peaceful, and the vast majority of them do not sympathize with them. Most of those who took part in the July 26 demonstrations that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had called for, did so to authorize to the army and police to disperse those two sit-ins, considering them loci for armed criminals, and confront the wave of violence perpetrated by the Brotherhood in all governorates. This included controlling the aggressive marches that blocked roads, bridges and antagonized inhabitants of various areas, in addition to eradicating terrorism from the Sinai and spreading the Egyptian state’s control over the peninsula and the rest of the country.
In this regard, the media constantly displays images of the berms and military fortifications that the protesters have erected, complete with firing holes from which to shoot at potential attackers. It also airs news about the slaughterhouses used by the Brotherhood to torture their opponents and shows their use of firearms, buckshot and Molotov cocktails in multiple attacks against Tahrir Square, the Media Production City and other places. The press talks about children being lured to the protest sites — possibly to be used as human shields — with promises of new clothes for Eid al-Fitr, candy and money. Furthermore, news has started coming out about attacks against Christian homes, property and churches in Upper Egypt and Port Said, which suggests that the Brothers and their allies aim to plunge the country in an inferno of sectarian strife.
Moreover, horrible reports have surfaced about the Muslim Brotherhood torturing and killing their opponents within the perimeters of the Rabia and Nahda protests; with Amnesty International issuing a disturbing report carrying evidence pointing to Morsi supporters torturing their opponents, resulting in the death of 11. The Ibn Khaldoun Center released a report that was even more serious, listing the occurrence of 82 deaths, 44 cases of torture and 670 cases of forcible detention at the hands of Brotherhood militias.
Irrespective of whether these images, news pieces and reports are accurate or exaggerated, they have drawn public opinion into viewing the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization — tying its members or allies to attacks on the army and police personnel and facilities in the Sinai, thus putting Egyptians in a state of anticipation as they ask themselves, "When will the protests be dispersed?"
Contradictory indicators and angry reactions
Contrary to this anticipatory mode, many Egyptians were frustrated by a Reuters report which published “leaks” about an imminent reconciliation with the Brotherhood — which will be given three ministerial portfolios and will have its assets unfrozen. The Independent also announced that Morsi would record a televised speech, in which he would announce his resignation in return for safe passage to a European country. In addition, US, European and Arab mediatory visits and attempts of conciliation peaked — with the foreign ministers of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates meeting with Morsi in detention — at the end of which the Qatari foreign minister asked to have a private whispering conversation with Morsi, an occurrence that Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen harshly criticized in his television program “Al Janeb al Akhar” (The Other Side).
In a recent Al-Monitor article, I stated that the mandate requested by Sisi would constitute a double-edged sword; for, on one end, the forceful dispersal of the protests may result in a tremendous number of casualties, especially with the Brotherhood’s strategy to maximize the blood toll to allow for exploitation of the blood of victims in advancing the organization’s bargaining position. On the other end, indecisiveness, after millions of people took to the streets to unequivocally demand dispersal of the sit-ins, will lead to an erosion of Sisi’s credibility and that of the transition government as a whole. In fact, the Egyptian people have begun to feel restless and frustrated as a result of the lack of firm action, backed by overwhelming support and public opinion polls that leave no room for doubt. Questions are being raised about Sisi’s level of determination and his ability to deliver on his promises. Furthermore, news has leaked that such action was postponed as Mohamed ElBaradei requested more time for dialogue with the Brotherhood. This resulted in him being harshly criticized, especially after an interview was published in The Washington Post, in which the newspaper quoted him as saying that he does not mind Morsi being released if the accusations against him proved not to be serious — in the context of a grand compromise that would end the crisis. But ElBaradei later stated that the newspaper took his words out of context.
The Egyptian Cabinet met on July 31 and decided to task the Interior Ministry with taking all measures necessary to disperse the Rabia and Nahda protests, with the dispersal operation potentially being broadcast live on air, to prevent the Brotherhood from accusing the security forces of using excessive force.
Is there a way out?
I had a long discussion with one of my “liberal” colleagues about the various ways by which the political conflict could be resolved in Egypt. To begin with, I must state that this friend formed close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood during the last two years, to the point of him establishing an electoral alliance with them. As a former parliamentarian, he had established strong relations with Morsi for an extended period of time — this relationship growing ever closer with his membership of the Democratic Alliance for Egypt. Subsequent to Morsi’s ascension to the presidency of Egypt, my colleague had almost daily contact with Morsi during his reign. Several of his party’s officials were nominated by Morsi as legislators in the Shura Council as well as in executive positions. With that in mind, my friend began by trying to exonerate himself, affirming that he had urged Morsi — prior to June 30 — to favorably respond, even if partially, to opposition’s demands. But Morsi did not heed his advice, his view of the facts on the ground clouded by the Brotherhood’s overconfidence and their assurances, which — until the last moment — prevented him from fully sizing the popularity of the protest movement and the level of institutional dissent to his rule.
My friend asked me: “We agree that Morsi and the Brotherhood made many serious errors, but what is the way out?” To which I replied that, in my opinion, it lays in the Brotherhood truly recognizing the presence of the Egyptian state! “What do you mean?” he said. “Don’t you think that this is a strange thing to ask for? How would they go about it in a practical sense? Would they issue a statement to that effect, for example?”
Indeed, it is a strange thing to ask for. What does it mean to ask the Brotherhood to recognize the Egyptian state? Is it possible that Morsi, for example, who was the president of Egypt, did not recognize the state that he presided over? Still, in my opinion, this is the starting point if we want to avoid circling around the problem without actually dealing with its core substance. Of course, other things are also required: that they refrain from trying to alter Egypt’s identity, that they dismantle their international secret organization, open their companies and assets publicly to shareholders, disband their militias and alliances with terrorist organizations and content themselves with being a political party. By running a secret organization operating in many intertwined sectors and locations, they act as a state within the state, which makes them a threat to any country in which they operate, especially since their ideology does not recognize the concept of a nation state — that is, a state in which a group of fellow citizens, regardless of their religion, share a certain piece of land — homeland — on which the nation state stands. Their view is that Islam is the true nation for Muslims, while Egypt is but a “clump of clay,” and that “homeland is but a rotten fist of dirt,” as Sayyid Qutb said. “The hell with Egypt,” as the Brotherhood’s former Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, now detained pending trial, once opined.
Is it fair to demand that of the Muslim Brotherhood? It is unusual to dictate political beliefs on those with whom you disagree; but, certainly, there are shared principles which are self-evident in any state — the first of which is the acknowledgement and recognition of the state itself. In Indonesia, these are enshrined in the “Pancasila” with its five guiding principles. In the United States, they are celebrated in the Declaration of Independence. Is it logical for a party to politically compete in — let alone rule a state — while it cares nothing for that state’s sovereignty, sanctity of its soil, integrity of its territory, precedence of its national interests and unity of its people? Instead, to transform it into one that is subservient to the Brotherhood and gets busy in dismantling state’s institutions — under the pretense of purging it — and mutate its culture and identity. Egyptians may not stand against the formation of alliances or unions with other Arab and Muslim countries; but for them, Egypt will always remain their indivisible homeland. The Brotherhood, on the contrary, do not recognize the concept of a territory-based nation, nor that of citizenship. They would accept that a Malaysian Muslim be president of Egypt (despite the fact that he is not Egyptian) — and deny this right to Christian Egyptians (who in their view are mere dhimmis, non-Muslims living under Muslim rule). Is it logical to ask Egyptians — the most ancient people of the world — to accept the presence of a political entity that is a mere political wing, a dummy front for an international secret and illegal organization that works clandestinely and uses all legitimate, semi-legitimate, illegitimate, peaceful and violent means to destroy their state, change its identity and undermine the unity of their nation?
Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood would think that such a solution would extinguish its foundational ideology and nullify the indoctrinating manner by which it controls a society — which relies on manipulating its cultural “genes” and forcing it to espouse the same creed as that of the Brotherhood — through the amendment of legislation and teaching curricula, as well as by controlling the media, press, religious institutions (Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and mosques), cultural and economic activities. This is done to make Egyptians (or citizens of any other targeted country) willing to accept, indeed demanding the Brotherhood’s rule. But, if this 85-year-old organization is incapable of evolving, how can we ask a millennia-old state and nation to relinquish its existence? The existential nature of the conflict has led to this extreme level of polarization that will inevitably reach a point of collision, unless one of the parties changes course.
Can the Muslim Brotherhood embark on such a step and undergo necessary evolution? Modify their political agenda and compete for power without seeking to change the cultural identity and nature of a state? The old generation probably cannot, and thus continues to try and inflame the confrontational situation because any semblance of calm would necessitate that Brotherhood members hold their leaders accountable for their greed, arrogance and lack of judgment — which led to the collapse of the Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt and the region as well as exposed its relationship with terrorist organizations, thus threatening the existence of the organization itself. Persistence of the crisis will indefinitely postpone this process of accountability, “because no considerations may prevail over those of the battle at hand.” Can former, yet still popular and influential leaders of the Brotherhood such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Mohammad Habib, Kamal al-Halbawi and Mokhtar Nouh — who defected from the Brotherhood because of disagreements with its current guidance bureau — lead a reformist movement capable of reshaping the Brotherhood’s agenda into a modern mold that does not clash with existing states, peoples and laws? The Brothers Without Violence movement has asked the Brotherhood’s leadership to resign. It has also announced that it succeeded in convincing a great number of young Brotherhood members — who came from outlying provinces — to voluntarily leave the protest grounds within days, for the sake of their lives and the interests of the country. Is this a real and genuine reformist movement possessing popularity and influence among Brotherhood members, or is it merely composed of individuals whom security agencies managed to recruit? Only time will tell.
But, if the Brotherhood’s survival rests on its ability to evolve its doctrine so that it better adapts to the prevailing societal circumstances, will the new generation of Brotherhood leaders — or those of the Freedom and Justice Party — be able to achieve a quantum leap in thought, organizational style and level of transparency, that would transform the Brotherhood into a modern political organization whose existence is harmonious with that of Egypt — or any other nation state for that matter? Will they be able to transcend the period when they were labeled an illegal organization and work within the bounds of legality, as a political party that derives its decisions from within, and is not merely a front, behind which an illegal, secret international network hides?
The answer to this question — and not any protests or sit-ins, no matter how long they can be sustained — will determine the Brotherhood’s fate.
Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara