A friend asked me recently what Egyptian liberals were thinking these days, and I replied ruefully that I imagined it felt like scrambling back into the frying pan to get out of the fire. That is, if post-Mubarak military rule was the frying pan, then Muslim Brotherhood rule was the fire. He also asked if, given the roiling polarization in Egyptian society between secularists and Islamists, and the stalemate between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military, civil war loomed on the horizon. The state has a monopoly on force of arms in Egypt, unlike in Syria or Iraq, and the Muslim Brotherhood has no militias at its command- yet- so civil war in the classic sense is not imminent, but if the situation continues to deteriorate and foreign powers intervene to arm factions, it will be a very real threat.
So is there any way to pull back from the brink, to diffuse the crisis without more bloodshed?
For the past month, there have been hundreds of thousands of Morsi diehards camped out in front of a mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. All efforts to dislodge them have failed so far, in spite of clashes with the authorities that have led to a hundred killings. They are digging in, literally digging up sidewalk bricks to build a wall around the perimeter of the mosque. The unsanitary ad hoc tent-living conditions have become a serious health hazard, not to mention the traffic impasse and total disruption of the lives of the hapless, infuriated residents of the neighborhood, who are hardly mollified by some protesters’ offers of flowers and apologies.
The military authorities have warned that they will ‘soon’ move to dislodge the encampments. It is a necessary step, most Egyptians believe, to clear, not just the Morsi supporter mosque sit-in, but also Tahrir and all the other offshoot sit-ins as well. The right to free speech and assembly, even in a democracy, means the right to march and demonstrate, with the prerequisite permit, and police protection- after which everyone goes home. It does not mean the right to take over every public space and turn it into a permanent, lawless, tent city cum soup kitchen cum street fair populated as much by the homeless, the hungry, or the jobless as by committed activists. Egyptians want, need, and deserve a return to civility, to patrolled city streets, to functional city squares, and to law and order.
On the other hand, it would be a serious mistake for General El-Sissi and the military to interpret the massive turnout in their favor as a mandate to massacre. Moral issues aside, there is more appetite on the Muslim Brotherhood side to create martyrs than there is on the military’s, and for good reason. The Muslim Brethren are a minority, unquestionably, but their support runs deep. For every Morsi supporter camped out in front of the mosque, for every card-carrying Muslim Brotherhood member, there are multiple sympathizers in the society at large, and that is true across the socio-economic divide. I can think of one example of twin sisters, thirty-something young women whose father, on their eighteenth birthday, bought each a matching Mercedes sports car to drive to college. One marched in support of the Military takeover, and one supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Families are divided on the issue, brother against sister, and husband against wife.
The hope, therefore, is to diffuse the crisis through negotiation, and not by forcible eviction of the encampment. There are signs of political will on the part of Western powers to find a peaceful solution. The European Union has sent its Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Egypt to try to broker a deal, officially at the behest of the stakeholders. On the Egyptian government side, she will find competent, experienced interlocutors in Vice-President Mohamed Baradei, former chief of the U.N. Nuclear Agency, and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, former ambassador to Washington. On the MB side, president Morsi is held incommunicado and other leaders are under arrest, but there are other prominent heads of the movement to negotiate through. Intriguingly, a group of younger cadres who call themselves the “Brethren Without Violence” have dissented from the MB leadership and may lead the way out of the mosque encampment.
For its part, the Obama seems to grasp the wider implications of the crisis for the stability of the region and has charged Foreign Secretary Kerry to broker talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders with a view to re-launching the peace process. It truly is the eleventh hour, but the hope seems to be that Israel might recognize the urgency for stability in an increasingly unstable region, and that the Abbas administration in the Palestinian Territories might recognize an opportunity when its rival, Hamas in Gaza, is weakened by the loss of the Morsi administration’s support.
For the U.S., Israel and the world, not only Egypt but also Gaza and Syria are in play. The Brotherhood were to all evidence supporting Islamist radicals in an increasingly lawless Sinai, as well as supporting Hamas in Gaza and the Islamist insurgency in Syria against Bashar Assad. Egyptian volunteers were allegedly travelling to Syria for jihad, and might come back radicalized and pose a threat to their own society and beyond.
Pursuing a peaceful solution to the impasse in Egypt that allows the MB to save face is worth every iota of patience and self-control the military can muster and the civilian authorities can urge. The alternative is a bloodbath and the creation of martyrs that will serve as a radicalizing myth to inspire generations of terrorists, and cleave a fractured society irreparably in two.