Regional Affairs: Unrest in Egypt appears far from over

With the collapse of international attempts at mediating between the army-installed government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both sides are gearing up for confrontation.

August 10, 2013 04:10
A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi holds up a Koran during a protest.

Morsi supporters night with Koran 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour’s statement on Wednesday, that diplomatic efforts to end the political standoff in the country have failed, means the next stage in the turmoil that has wracked Egypt for over two years is about to begin.

This will translate into a severe crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

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Following the collapse of international mediation efforts, the army-installed government repeated its threat to take action against supporters of Morsi. And Mansour, in a message on the eve of Id al-Fitr, said Egypt was in critical circumstances: “The train of the future has departed, and everyone must realize the moment and catch up with it. Whoever fails to realize this moment must take responsibility for their decision.”

Many of those who follow developments in the region are not surprised, as it dovetails with the culture and history of intra-Arab struggles for political power – a region traditionally led by strongmen and devoid of Western democracy, with a winner-take-all mentality that does not leave room for compromise or losers.

In fact, in a 2006 paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East,” which Egyptian military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wrote while studying at the US Army War College, he argues that “existing conflict and tension needs to be resolved before democracy can be more fully accepted by the people of the area.”

“On the surface, many of the autocratic leaders claim that they are in favor of democratic ideals and forms of government, but they are leery of relinquishing control to the voting public of their regimes,” wrote Sisi.

He goes on to note that the challenge today is similar to the one faced at the beginning of Islam: uniting “these tribal and ethnic factions.” In any case, he states that Middle Eastern democracy is not likely to follow the Western model, but will have “its own shape [...] with stronger religious ties.”

Eric Trager, an Egypt expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in Foreign Policy that Sisi’s argument is basically the same one that former president Hosni Mubarak made, “that Middle Easterners are just not ready for democracy.”

Halim Barakat, a novelist, sociologist and retired professor at The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, was born in Syria and raised in Beirut.

He writes in his book The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State about the importance of the classic Arab family as the fundamental unit in Arab society – holding just as true among a traditional Beduin family as it does among that of a modernized urban Arab.

“The success or failure of an individual member becomes that of the family as a whole. This centrality of the family as the basic socioeconomic unit is now being increasingly challenged by the state and other social institutions. But the network of interdependent kinship relations continues to prevail. In this network, the father continues to wield authority, assume responsibility for the family, and expect respect and unquestioning compliance with his instructions.”

It is these patriarchal values that “prevail at work, at school, and in religious, political and social associations. In all of these, a father figure rules over others, monopolizing authority, expecting strict obedience and showing little tolerance of dissent.”

Barakat goes on to conclude that these values are critical for political leadership in the Arab world: “While kinship loyalties may conflict with national loyalty and undermine national consciousness, much of the legitimacy of political orders and rulers derives from the family and its values.”

In Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, Philip Carl Salzman, a professor of anthropology at McGill University, describes how the ethos of Arab tribal culture functions and how it is still prescient today. The book helps clarify what we have been witnessing with the recent regional upheavals, particularly in Egypt.

He writes: “Democracy only works when all parties are committed to the electoral rules and are prepared to defer to the results of the polls. Otherwise, election results become an occasion for a standoff between opponent parties and a rebellion by the unelected party.

Equally, a violation of democracy is the permanent monopolization of power by a once-elected party: one man, one vote, one time.”

Is this what we are seeing in Egypt, simply a power-struggle between two main factions? When Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood controlled the government, they tried to take complete control of the state – just as the new army-backed government is doing today.

Into this environment entered US Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who held a press conference on Tuesday calling the overthrow of Morsi a “coup,” and telling the Egyptian leadership that Morsi should be released and steps towards democracy should be taken immediately.

The Egyptian media and government officials lashed out at the “interference” of the Americans, predictably rejecting their comments.

Trager told The Jerusalem Post, “Negotiations were never likely to succeed, because the fact that the military removed the Brotherhood from power means that its fight with the Brotherhood is existential, and vice versa.”

“I expect that the military’s attempt to decapitate the Brotherhood will continue, because the generals fear that liberating Brotherhood leaders would threaten their own lives,” said Trager.

The fact that the generals have substantial public support means that a crackdown on the Brotherhood is “all the more likely.”

Anna Boyd, a senior Middle East analyst at the London-based IHS Country Risk, told the Post that she thinks the attempt to clear Rabiya al-Adawiya, where the protesters supporting Morsi are concentrated, “has to come sooner rather than later, while the army is still buoyed by support from the Tamarod and youth movements, and by the demonstration that Sisi called by way of a ‘popular mandate’ to crack down on terrorism.”

“If they leave it too long, there is a risk that this support will start to diminish as the reality of ongoing economic problems and army repressive tactics start to kick in,” she said.

Boyd thinks that the army wants Islamists in the next government so that it would be representative, but adds that it is unlikely they would be allowed to regain any real political power. And an Islamist election boycott cannot be ruled out, she said.

The army crackdown may increase the chances that the more extreme elements of the Brotherhood and Salafi groups will respond with violence, as they feel closed out of the political process, said Boyd.

“This is already happening, for example with recent attacks on police stations,” said Boyd, stressing that this “will play into the army’s hands, as it provides an excuse to continue with the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which will be blamed – fairly or not – for such attacks.”

The other crackdown is in the form of legal action to cut off the Brotherhood’s funding.

In a recent brief, Boyd described some of the actions that Egypt’s public prosecutor was taking against the movement’s figures. In addition to criminal charges such as incitement to violence, there are accusations that $10 billion of the Qatari aid money intended for Egypt was diverted into Brotherhood-affiliated bank accounts.

Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told the Post that the army has no choice but to act, because it has “put itself in a corner by asking the people to come out and give it their support.”

“You can’t ask the masses to mobilize and then give them nothing. That would mean the erosion of Sisi’s popularity, and he surely wants to keep that,” said Tadros.

He says that the Brotherhood’s strategy thus far has been based on martyrdom, and by continuing the protests, they are essentially “offering their members as martyrs” – betting that the army will be forced to compromise, instead of risking a large death toll.

Tadros believes the problem with this strategy is that the army monopolizes the local media narrative, and the only real constraint on a clampdown on the protests is worry about international reaction.

The army will win this battle, says Tadros, “but the war has hardly begun.”

Reuters contributed to this report

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