Egypt’s Republican Guard today ordered rival demonstrators to leave the area around the presidential palace in Cairo after seven people were killed in overnight clashes.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters of President Mohamed Morsi withdrew, but opposition groups promised further protests.
“This is not a fight for an individual, this is not a fight for President Morsi,” one supporter declared. “We are fighting for God’s law, against the secularists and liberals.”
The largely liberal and secular demonstrators were protesting the president’s recent decree to expand his prerogatives and against plans to push through an Islamist-oriented constitution.
“If this constitution passes, it will be the first Egyptian constitution that adopts a specific religious doctrine for the state,” writes Ragab Saad of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, noting that certain articles could allow for “instituting authoritarianism in the name of religion.”
Morsi’s Islamist backers yesterday attacked opposition protesters, reportedly at the instigation of a prominent Brotherhood leader.
The Brotherhood’s former Supreme Guide Mehdi Akef reportedly said that the group’s deputy leader “Khairat el-Shater is the one who gave the direct orders to the Brotherhood to descend on the palace and disperse the sit-in.”
The group’s senior leaders are “fully convinced that the felol [former regime elements] are behind the crisis and they should be beaten and kicked out of the scene,” says one of the best online/scholarly observers.
“Tuesday showed the true colors of the Brotherhood,” according to Bikya Masr:
They revealed that they can continue to lie to a population, fall back on an election victory that means very little today – if you abuse democratic power, the people have a right to rise up against you – and showed Egyptians that they have no desire for democracy… At the same time, the media propaganda coming from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government shows they have learned little about the changes that have taken hold in Egypt for the past two years.
“Egyptians will no longer accept dictatorship and authoritarianism,” it notes, suggesting that “Egyptian liberals have shown they can learn from past mistakes, evolving to once again take the mantle of change.”
“Morsi is not in control and the MB leaders are the real player” says Durham University’s Khalil Anani. “The Brotherhood’s resilient character makes it hard to expect any concessions from its leaders.
According to Reuters: Morsi has shown no sign of buckling under pressure from protesters, confident that the Islamists, who have dominated both elections since Mubarak was overthrown, can win the referendum and the parliamentary election to follow. As well as relying on his Brotherhood power base, Morsi may also draw on a popular yearning for stability and economic revival after almost two years of political turmoil.
The Brotherhood has formed a new Islamist coalition with several ultraconservative Salafist groups, which issued a statement accusing the protesters’ of “disgusting practices,” and warning that “the alert masses of the Egyptian people are capable of defending legitimacy and defending the gains of their glorious revolution.”
The alliance appears designed to smooth relations with those Salafis who have criticized the draft constitution for not imposing sharia law.
“The tensions between the Salafis and the brotherhood have important implications for the referendum on the draft constitution and the parliamentary elections that will follow,” writes analyst Mara Revkin in Foreign Policy. “It will take more than the brotherhood’s core constituency to pass the new draft constitution. Salafis and liberals will need to vote in significant numbers.”
There is growing pressure on the military — which enjoys a good relationship with Morsi — to take sides, said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.:
At the moment, Springborg said, the military and Morsi have cemented their relationship through the draft constitution. The document enshrines the military’s autonomy to a degree that surpasses even the Mubarak days, a position the generals might be reluctant to relinquish to secular forces interested in rewriting the charter. But the more they believe that Morsi is mishandling the transition, the more incentive they may have to abandon him, Springborg said, a fact that may also put pressure on the president to try to settle the crisis.
In some sense, Springborg said, “both sides are looking to the military to decide the future of the country where they are unable as civilians to work it out between themselves.”
But another prominent observer concedes that “We don’t know what is going on the military.”
“It is going to be increasingly difficult for the military to play a political role in this very divided atmosphere because probably the military is itself polarized internally,” says Carnegie analyst Marina Ottaway.
“The military is a cross section of Egyptian society,” she observes. “They have a very large number of draftees, and a lot of the draftees are undoubtedly sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, if not of the Salafis…… And probably, there are divisions in the officer corps.
The conflict between the Islamists and the seculars has become a Greek tragedy, she says.
“The two sides are not fighting with the same weapons. The Muslim Brothers are fighting in the electoral arena, not necessarily because they are more democratic but because they can win elections. So it is to their advantage to have a referendum,” Ottaway notes. “The secular opposition does not have the support of a unified organization to win elections and are using the courts in order to bolster their own power and to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from benefiting from the results of elections.”
The acute polarization and heated rhetoric is raising the prospect of further political violence, observers suggest.
“The mostly liberal and leftwing activists who led last year’s uprising against Mr Mubarak’s decades-long rule have grown alarmed at the increasingly menacing rhetoric of Mr Morsi and his allies,” writes Cairo-based analyst Heba Saleh:
Before bearded Islamist enforcers stormed the tent encampment outside the presidential palace, Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Freedom and Justice, called on supporters to take the law into their own hands and cleanse the streets of troublemakers.
The conflict is reportedly exposing differences within the Obama administration and other external actors over the appropriate response and longer term approaches to engaging the Islamist government.
“There’s a real divide in Washington right now inside the U.S. government as well as in the expert community between those who are willing to assume good intentions on the part of President Morsi and those who believe that what he has done recently proves he has no intention of carrying out a full democratic transition,” said the Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne. “Developments in Egypt over the next few weeks might settle this argument one way or the other.”
According to a bipartisan Task Force on the Future of U.S.-Egypt Relations, U.S. policy “should be based on presenting Egyptian leaders with a set of clear choices that would give them a pathway to act as responsible national leaders rather than as religiously inspired ideologues.”
“While Washington cannot convince or compel the Islamists governing Egypt to give up their deeply held ideology, the United States can use its leverage to affect Egyptian behavior,” say Vin Weber and Gregory B. Craig who chaired the group, an initiative of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The task force recommends that:
- the president and congressional leaders should together inform the Egyptians about an additional “informal conditionality” on issues of “constitutional democracy and political pluralism,” i.e., that backward movement on constitutionalism or substantial violations of human rights or measures against women and religious minorities would make it politically difficult to maintain a close and mutually beneficial relationship.
- the administration should use a portion of Egypt’s military aid — at least $100 million to start, and increasing over time — to incentivize more aggressive efforts by the Egyptian government to combat terrorism in Sinai.
- the administration should actively engage with the broadest possible spectrum of political actors in Egypt, even if the non-Islamist opposition is currently weak and divided.
Vin Weber is a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and former chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy. Gregory B. Craig served as White House counsel in the Obama administration and as director of State Department policy planning in the Clinton administration.