Tensions are high in Egypt ahead of a planned opposition protest scheduled for next Sunday. Egypt’s government promised “exemplary punishment” on Monday after a mob killed four Shi’ites near Cairo, raising fears of wider sectarian bloodshed at a time of grave national crisis.
But Shi’ite minority leaders and the liberal opposition accused the government itself – dominated by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – of whipping up sectarian anger over the war in Syria as a means of appeasing its own hardline Salafist allies.
A video posted online by rights activists showed dozens of men and youths looking on as several others drag the bloodied body of at least one man along a street, one pulling on what may be a rope tied around his neck. In another video from Sunday, a squad of riot police is present as a group of women chant “No God but God!” on a crowded, narrow street.
There has been scattered political violence and the army – which effectively ran Egypt for decades before the 2011 revolution – warned it would step in to quell any unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies see the opposition protests demanding that President Mohamed Morsi resign as an undemocratic attempt at a coup, since Morsi won the presidency through elections.
Prof. Abdallah Schleifer, a Cairo-based columnist for the Al Arabiya news website, told The Jerusalem Post that the opposition feels betrayed because the Muslim Brotherhood did not follow through with its electoral promises to form a coalition government.
He argued that though not all of the problems can be blamed on Morsi’s government, the middle class is fed up with its poor economic condition. He noted that there are many people in Cairo who supported Morsi during the elections, but that are now against him.
Schleifer considers it naïve to think that Morsi will resign as a result of the upcoming protest, but says that there are some in the opposition who fully understand that. They are hoping that if the Brotherhood calls out its supporters and a bloodbath ensues, it might be enough to justify an army takeover.
“That is the only way Morsi is going to leave power – if there is a coup d’état,” said Schleifer.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not running the country very well and Schleifer attributes this to the fact that for 80 years, they have never exercised executive power in the government. Rather, he explained, the Brotherhood has experience maintaining a very disciplined, semi-clandestine movement experienced in running charities.
The party is filled with people who studied sciences, but are thin on political skill, noted Schleifer, adding that they were savvy in navigating their way with the army at the beginning when they dismissed former commander Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. “They recognized that power was with the army, not Tahrir.”
According to Schleifer, the protesters in Tahrir Square believed “in the allusion that somehow they had power and forced Mubarak out, when what they did was create an uprising, which led to a soft coup.”
He asserts that it is a myth that the Brotherhood “hijacked” the revolution, as its youth movement was given permission from the beginning to get involved. “Half of the fighting force defending Tahrir protestors was from the Muslim Brotherhood and the other half were football fans,” he said.
Asked about Morsi’s appointment of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as commander of the armed forces, Schleifer said that “just because he is a pious Muslim does not mean he is in their [the Brotherhood’s] pocket.”
Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is currently traveling in the region, agrees that Sisi, while having technically been appointed by Morsi, was appointed as “a consequence of a deal between the Brotherhood and the military in which the military ceded political power in exchange for autonomy.” In fact, notes Trager, much of Sisi’s behavior demonstrates a streak of independence, which serves to bolster his image.
“The unanswerable question,” Trager said, “is what would happen if Morsi fired Sisi. Would he go? Would the military rebel against Morsi?” Trager sees military intervention in Egyptian politics as a possibility only should the violence become severe.
Regarding Israel, Trager does not see Egypt currently making any aggressive moves “unless some sort of opportunity presents itself.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood have a long-term agenda in terms of phases, and right now they are in the phase of building an Islamic state in Egypt,” he said, adding it is “focused on internal challenges” for now. The Brotherhood’s final goal, of course, “is to build a global Islamic state.”
The Brotherood is “trying hard to avoid a crisis with the US,” said Trager.
For this reason, “it is not likely that Egypt will do much in foreign policy that challenges US interests, but it will not be like this indefinitely, as at some point, the party will move against US interests.”