Egypt on the brink
by Ferry de Kerckhove
September 5, 2013
The events in Egypt raise fundamental questions, beyond the fate of democracy. The wishful thinking in the West about democracy spreading to the Arab World has been exposed. The dictatorial, military-based leadership the West put in place or helped come to power in most of these countries cannot mutate overnight into full-fledged democratic governance. Today, the issue underpinning the crisis is the ability for the people of Egypt, poor as most are, to feed themselves and their children and live in dignity.
Egyptians never wanted a theocratic regime
Fate seemed to have decided otherwise. Islamists garnered nearly 75 per cent of the votes in the first parliamentary elections. Liberal parties not having been able to achieve any unity, the Islamists filled the void.
Meanwhile the army, seen originally as the saviour of the revolution, progressively disqualified itself. And by the time of the 2012 presidential elections, Egyptians had to decide between the worst of two evils: Air Marshal Ahmed Shafik, the candidate of the military, or Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s deep divide was made worse by Morsi’s disastrous and increasingly sectarian performance. The elite is opposed to Sharia-based politics and society. But for the majority of the population, mismanagement of the economy is what delivered millions of signatures against Morsi.
His attempts to grab all powers provoked the disaffection of his many voters. Religion has had little to do with the events as even the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar supported Morsi’s overthrow.
Has the subsequent repression strengthened the position of the Islamists? Would a free and fair election bring them back to power again, assuming the military allowed it? The answer lies less in numbers than in opportunities for the people of Egypt.
The military’s role in Egypt’s politics will remain for years
Until 2011, modern Egypt had been under military rule since the overthrow of King Farouk. Its role is unlikely to abate. Although by allowing the overthrow of a democratically elected president, the military introduced a new kind of instability in the political process and clearly forced a dangerous recess in the evolution of the Egyptian polity.
But for the military and its supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood has become a fundamental threat to stability and national security; the Sinai was filling up with its load of terrorists and Morsi had failed to heed the call for a dialogue with the opposition.
Although loath to admit it, there remains a strong appeal throughout Egypt for the leadership of a “Rais,” a strong ruler in uniform, a modern pharaoh. But the heavy-handedness of the military may eventually force the Islamists underground with the help of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda militants.
There are no angels in today’s Egypt
The army’s violence, highlighted by the media, has painted the Muslim Brotherhood as victims even when they carried the flag of Al Qaeda. Victims they are. But they were well armed. Assailants don’t kill 45 policemen in a short span without weapons to do so.
And while it has become impossible to distinguish facts and fiction, thuggery is rampant today. The Muslim Brotherhood may be cowed into partial submission but Egypt will remain the battleground Egyptians never wanted. Retribution against Christians for allegedly supporting the military has been ferocious, as attested by the destruction of nearly 50 churches in a few days.
The regional affect is profound, the West is left with hardly any influence
The events in Egypt reflect a broader divide in the Muslim world, as much within the Sunni community as between the Sunni and the Shia.
Islamists are losing ground in Tunisia. Taksim Square has revealed the social fracture in Turkey. Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Jazeera in tow. Saudi Arabia “instructs” Salafists to support the Egyptian military.
The social cleavage in all these societies is also pronounced in the Shia crescent of Iran, Iraq and Syria, supported by Russia.
While Egypt remains “the best non-NATO ally of the United States,” the latter has demonstrated it no longer can impose its will on its partner. Worse, on both sides of the divide in Egypt, anti-Americanism is at its highest point. Meanwhile, Israel calls for full support of the Egyptian military.
In conclusion, while Egypt will never be a Syria or an Algeria, a dialogue must take place; yet, as long as the military see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, the bloodshed will continue.
A dialogue between the West and Egypt must also take place. The whole region needs reassurances.
Ferry de Kerckhove is a distinguished fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and Canada’s former ambassador to Egypt.