By Col Rajeev Agarwal
The crackdown by the Egyptian police and the military on pro Morsi supporters camping in Cairo since President Morsi’s ouster on 3 July was waiting to happen and therefore didn’t come as a surprise when it took place in the early hours of 14 August. What was however not expected was the brutality and the severity of the crackdown which has resulted in the loss of 600 to 2,200 lives (as per varying accounts by government and Muslim Brotherhood). Irrespective of the exact number of casualties, the brutality of the crackdown was amply clear to any bystander and the pictures of piled up bodies in makeshift morgues tell the true story.
As the story of Egypt’s free fall into political chaos unfolds, there is a lurking danger of the country plunging into a state of civil war. The success story of ‘Arab Spring’ in conducting elections and electing a democratically elected President seems to be faltering. As Egypt grapples with the unfolding situation and the international community calls for calm, few critical questions confront Egypt.
Did the Egyptian army and its backers underestimate the power and public following of Muslim Brotherhood and thus miscalculate in ousting it from power?
Has the Egyptian Army, which had won many admirers in defying Mubarak and remaining neutral during the revolutions in January 2011, lost its credibility in Egypt and in the world?
Has the crackdown of 14 August closed all doors for reconciliation in Egypt?
Is Egypt too going the Syria way as it plunges into bloody riots and potential civil war?
Ouster of Muslim Brotherhood: A serious miscalculation?
Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is the country’s largest and oldest Islamist organisation. The movement’s ideology has evolved from “daawa” – or preaching for good morals and Islamic teachings – into a belief based on political Islam. Oppressed under successive military rulers from the 1950s, Muslim Brotherhood grew into a significant underground social movement over time, cultivating huge public following. It built considerable grass-roots support by providing much needed social services in impoverished areas. Such activities earned it a reputation for competence and honesty, often in contrast to President Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), popularly perceived as self-serving and corrupt. As per current estimates, the Muslim Brotherhood runs 22 hospitals in Egypt and has schools in every governorate in the country. The organisation also runs numerous care centers for poor widows and orphans as well as training programmes for the unemployed. Of the roughly 5,000 legally registered NGOs and associations in Egypt, an estimated 20 percent are Brotherhood-run1 .
The ouster of President Mubarak provided them the perfect opportunity to come over ground, establishing themselves as a political party. Their success can be gauged from the fact that they have won every election since 2011, including the parliamentary and presidential elections. It has emerged as the mother organisation for its affiliates in other countries like Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait and Syria where Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a major political force. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to understand why the Egyptian Army ousted the democratically government. If it thought that the chaos and unrest that would follow would be temporary and can be overcome, their calculations may have been proven wrong. Also, the massive sit-ins continuing right through July and threatening to expand in terms of numbers and space has proven that the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood could now be called as a serious mis-calculation.
Egyptian Army: Loosing credibility
Egyptian armed forces have been one of the strong pillars of Egyptian society for long. Under the continued rule of dictators since 1950s, it not only amassed tremendous power, but was often accused of running major business houses in Egypt. However, their stance of not siding with President Mubarak during the uprisings in January 2011 earned them many accolades and support within Egypt. After the ouster of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) provided a sense of calm and authority before conducting the Parliamentary and Presidential elections in which Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi came to power. Post elections, Morsi attempted to stamp his authority by reclaiming presidential powers from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), overturning the controversial “Supplementary Constitutional Declaration2 ” and ordering the parliament to reconvene (which had been dissolved under a court order in May). He even ordered retirement3 of SCAF chief Field Marshall Tantawi and his chief of staff Lieutenant General Sami Annan. Despite this, armed forces didn’t intervene directly and remained on the sidelines.
The ouster of Morsi by ‘soft coup’ on 3 July and the crackdown on 14 August has however put a question mark on the role of the armed forces in future political dispensation in Egypt as well as their credibility. Should the armed forces have removed Morsi from power forcibly? Should they have not left it to the people or the Tamarod movement4 to make situation untenable for Morsi to continue any longer as the President?
The armed forces should have perhaps considered three factors before taking any action like the ‘soft coup’ on 3 July. Firstly, Egypt was transitioning to democracy and Muslim Brotherhood had risen to power after six decades of being underground. Both require time, patience and support to prove themselves right or wrong. Second, Muslim Brotherhood with its large popular grass roots base would be no pushover post ouster and will not give up easily. Thirdly, instead of getting directly involved, if the Morsi government was to be ousted, there could have been other methods.
Now that Morsi was ousted, the continued sit-ins in Cairo were an embarrassment as well as a threat and therefore the crackdown was the only option after repeated requests and threats of removal by force had made no impact on the pro Morsi supporters. The execution, however, again has let the armed forces down by its sheer brutality. Without exception, there has been universal condemnation of the armed forces action including the US, its greatest benefactor.
Is Egypt too heading the Syria way?
Like Syria, both the opposing camps do not seem to have any common meeting ground. Also, like Syria, both have enough support and resources to bear losses and continue the conflict. While Saudi Arabia, UAE and Syria had welcomed the ouster of Morsi,5 , Iran, Turkey, and Qatar have denounced the crackdown in strong statements6 . The developing situation, therefore, could not only spiral off into a bloody civil war domestically, but could also polarise the region. Also, Egypt is more significant to the region than maybe, Syria. Egypt has modern and the largest armed forces in the region. It is also a major benefactor of US military aid ($ 1.3 Billion per year). It has the Suez Canal through which major world trade (including oil) transits daily. It shares borders with Israel across Sinai desert which is vulnerable to security threats and which has earlier too threatened to disrupt the fragile peace in the region. Thus, the threat of prolonged conflict in Egypt is a threat to the regional security as well.
Possibilities of reconciliation
Talks between the EU, US and the Egyptians broke down earlier this month without any resolution. With the crackdown of 14 August, whatever possibilities of peaceful resolution remained, too seem to have evaporated. Egyptian government claimed that it has intercepted communications from Muslim Brotherhood leaders on 15 August who commanded their members to wage a wave of attacks on police stations and government facilities. During the day, several police stations were stormed and government buildings and military installations attacked. More than 40 churches and several Christian schools were also attacked and some set on fire in six governorates. Muslim Brotherhood members further attempted to block several key roads in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria among other places around Egypt.
Mohamed El Baradei, Egypt’s vice president for international relations, has already resigned signaling his disapproval of the bloodshed. But the National Salvation Front (NSF), which El Baradei led until recently, praised the police and the government for their actions on Wednesday. The Egyptian government has imposed emergency in the state for one month and has given powers to police to take appropriate offensive action to disperse mob and protect installations. The possibility of peace and reconciliation in such a scenario seems far fetched. Egypt, the beacon of democracy and hope post ‘Arab Spring’, seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into the abysses of political chaos with every passing day.
(The writer is a Research Fellow at IDSA, Delhi)
1. EGYPT: Social programmes bolster appeal of Muslim Brotherhood, IRIN, 22 February 2006, available at http://www.irinnews.org/report/26150/egypt-social-programmes-bolster-appeal-of-muslim-brotherhood, accessed on 16 August 2013
2. Shukri, Muhammad, Q&A: Egypt’s new constitutional declaration, BBC News, 18 June 2012 available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18494178, accessed on 16 August 2013
3. Egypt leader Mursi orders army chief Tantawi to resign, BBC News, 12 August 2012, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19234763 , accessed on 16 August 2013
4. Profile: Egypt’s Tamarod protest movement, BBC News, 01 July 2013, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23131953, accessed on 16 August 2013.
5. World reaction to the ousting of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, BBC News 04 July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23175379, accessed on 16 August 2013.
6. Egypt protest camps cleared: International reaction, BBC News 15 August 2013, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23696963, accessed on 16 August 2013.