“The U.S. still hopes that Egypt’s military-backed interim leaders will cede power once elections scheduled for early next year are held and that an inclusive government will be formed under a publicly drafted constitution. Associated Press reports:
But if that doesn’t happen — and the military’s bloody crackdowns last week of political opponents dampen those hopes — the Obama administration cannot afford to distance itself from even an authoritarian Egypt.
“I don’t think the White House was under the illusion that some sort of liberal and enlightened system was going to emerge from the ashes of the dictator in Egypt,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2012.
She said the White House needs to develop a long-term strategy to nudge a military-run Egypt in a democratic direction.
“This is not about getting an ideal democracy,” said Wittes, director of the the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Mideast Policy. “It’s about the fact there will not be stability in Egypt without a more inclusive government.”
Human rights and democracy advocates have expressed concern that the Egyptian authorities are expanding the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood to liberal, secular and labor activists.
“A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry on Monday denied reports in the state news media over the weekend about an investigation into two prominent activists, Asmaa Mahfouz and Esraa Abdel Fattah (right), who are sometimes associated with the left-leaning April 6 group,” the New York Times reports:
The reports, which were noted in an article on Saturday in The New York Times, attracted attention as evidence that the government installed last month by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was widening its crackdown on dissent beyond the Islamist supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.
The reports indicated that the government was reviving old accusations against the activists about working on behalf of foreign powers to stir unrest in Egypt. Both activists are known in Western capitals for their work around the revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, so reports of the investigation complicated the new government’s efforts to win international recognition. But the reports of an investigation of Ms. Abdel Fattah was [sic] especially noteworthy because she has been an outspoken supporter of General Sisi’s ouster of Mr. Morsi.
Egypt’s next government will look “very much like the present one,” according to Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University, but “its actual working will enable rather than avoid repression,” he wrote in a recent analysis.
“The result, while it is based on a destruction of the hopes of 2011, is one that will have recognizably democratic elements (elections, a multiparty system, civilian leaders). It will likely establish itself as operational even if it does not provide full stability or social and political peace,” he wrote for Foreign Policy:
Egypt’s international interlocutors in the West may have advised against this path, but they will have to decide soon whether or not to accept it. The current regime’s insistence that this is a sovereign decision will make Western governments uncomfortable for now but they will likely ultimately accept it. They will still face the question of whether to treat it as a distasteful autocracy or a flawed but aspiring democracy — or whether to bother to make the distinction.
The arrest of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership will hinder rather than halt the Islamist group’s political activities, says a leading analyst.
While the Brotherhood is a structured group, it is organized to allow mid-level leaders to operate even in the absence of the peak leadership, says Khalil Al Anani, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute.
“It has different levels and each level can operate independently,” he said. “There are no strong communications between the leaders and grassroots now, but they have a very strong underground network and structure. They will be less effective but this will not end the movement.”
Mr Al Anani said the Brotherhood was perfectly used to operating under varying degrees of internationally backed state pressure. Since its foundation in 1928, it has a history of resilience in the face of adversity. But there was no doubt that this was a deep crisis for the movement. He pointed out that this was the first time since 1984 that a supreme guide of the movement had been detained.
“And the grassroots is not controllable,” he said. “This can lead to some splits.”
The organization is in “a state of unbalance,” says Anani, an expert on Islamists at Durham University in the UK.
“Where they should go from here, how to react to the state violence –” these are questions the organization is struggling to address. “It’s a very tough time for the Brotherhood, and the consequences of this would be very serious in the future, in terms of [the potential] for the movement to fracture and to what extent the grassroots would remain loyal to the leadership in terms of using violence or reacting violently.”
“The people who would normally be making the most important decisions on setting the strategic course for the organization are in prison – Shater and Mohamed Badie, who were the two most influential figures in the movement,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It presents an opportunity for the mid level and the second tier of the Brotherhood to play a more assertive role, and we’ll have to wait and see to what extent those types of figures emerge, and what kind of role they play in the organization.”
The Brotherhood, long focused on charity and bottom-up social change before it entered politics, endured decades of state oppression, but authorities have not arrested the general guide in decades. The top leadership was arrested in the 1950s under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose heavy-handed crackdown on the group continued to a lesser degree under the following presidents. Under Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in January 2011, the group was outlawed and leaders often arrested, but the group was allowed to run its members in elections as independents.
No ‘game plan’
Anani says the Brotherhood currently has no “central decision-making process” and is not in full control of its rank and file. “That’s why you can find some confusion in its behavior, whether to run protests or not,” he says. “I think the ability of the Brotherhood to mobilize people is decreasing by time.”
There have been some protests outside of Cairo since Sunday, but nothing like the massive mobilization the organization is known for. The Brotherhood member says this is because of the high death toll that resulted from Friday protests, when at least 173 people were killed in clashes with police and other civilians. “At this moment, people are waiting for them to call to people to go out. But [leaders] are weighing the risk of the blood,” he says.