The Egyptian security forces finally made their move against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in the early hours of August 14, 2013. After weeks of warnings by the interior ministry and the military, authorities followed through on the threat to storm the two protest sites at Raba’a al-Adaweya and al-Nahda, supported with bulldozers and armored personnel carriers. News sources described the protest areas as being transformed into a “war zone” as blood and gunfire erupted between the opposing forces. Casualty reports are streaming in continuously from journalists, Muslim Brotherhood spokespersons, and the health ministry but the fog of confusion in a volatile and intense situation makes it difficult to confirm any actual numbers that will no doubt increase throughout the day.

The clashes have not been limited to the two protest sites either. Fighting between protesters and residents across Cairo have also been reported in the Dokki and Mohandessin neighborhoods as pro-Morsi supporters tried to set up another protest site at the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque. Residents reported that armed men they accuse of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood also attempted to raid buildings to occupy rooftops surrounding the mosque space. The wider governorates have also witnessed violence in response to the raid. Alexandria, Assiut, Aswan, Fayoum, Minya, Sohag, and Suez have reported casualties and church burnings in the wake of the security raid in Cairo.

Sadly, none of this was inevitable and parties could have avoided bloodshed had reconciliation been the priority. Recent attempts by Western diplomats met with failure, not because their proposals were beyond the capacity of the conflicting parties, but rather due to an overall lack of political will. Domestic efforts from al-Azhar, the highest religious institution in Egypt, were also destined to fail for the same reason. Unfortunately, too many parties in the standoff had too much to gain in failed negotiations, and will now use the aftermath to their respective advantage:

The Muslim Brotherhood publicly rejected all overtures by any group to rejoin the political process if the interim government refused their core demands—including a return of Mohamed Morsi as president, and the restoration of the 2012 constitution, and Shura Council. Private negotiations remain shrouded in secrecy, but by maintaining a maximalist position in the street, indefinite protests would either grant the most concessions that would ensure the Muslim Brotherhood’s political survival or produce a status of victimhood which will now increase international sympathy for the group—in addition to putting pressure on the military and interim government. The language of martyrdom often heard on the stages of Raba’a Square only helped program the thousands gathered to endure a crackdown that now serves political interests, over the long term health of the country

The Egyptian Military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed obvious contempt for what he viewed as US interference in Egyptian developments that armchair intellectuals and diplomats could not possibly comprehend. The choice to support the raid on pro-Morsi protesters, however, comes at a time when he can claim that the Muslim Brotherhood rejected all acceptable options and pleas to end the sit-ins. The de facto leader of Egypt sees clearing the protests—just like Morsi’s removal— as a response to the will of the Egyptian people and a necessary evil. As a strategist, he may think he can manage the fallout from such tactics both domestically and internationally, relying on huge segments of Egyptian society who will applaud his patience, restraint, and leadership during a difficult time.

The Egyptian Police have struggled with a lack of respect since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Many describe one of the gains of the January 25 revolution as people’s “barrier of fear being broken,” but the resulting timidity in the face of protesters produced the unintended side effect of inaction and indifference of the police to insecurity. A crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters not only allows the institution to take out its frustration on those they partially blame for the drop in social status, but also allows the interior ministry to reassert itself as the keeper of order in the country. Any backlash from the Muslim Brotherhood will now require a heavy-handed response that will stifle political dissent not only from Islamists but also political activists who fought and died for a pluralistic system.

The Egyptian Liberals who once fought Morsi’s policies for the sake of a more democratic system have too easily subscribed to a highly undemocratic development. After this raid, those who truly believe in the principles of democracy and free expression will have no choice but to resign from the interim government, further reducing its credibility in the eyes of some Egyptians and leaving it largely in the hands of those willing to sacrifice these principles in the interest of stability and national security. 

If this picture sounds familiar, it is. A Muslim Brotherhood driven underground, a leading military figure, an assertive police force, and submissive liberal bloc is perhaps the most apt description of pre-2011 Egypt. It might be too early to characterize the revolution as dead, but none can deny that any notion of democratic development will be placed in deep freeze for the foreseeable future. Islamist retaliation will only strengthen the chances of a full return to a police state and reverse the gains of the revolution, all with the near full support of anti-Islamists. One Egyptian activist told the Atlantic Council, “The Muslim Brotherhood not only made us hate our religion, they made us hate the notion of democracy.” For Egypt’s sake, one can only hope she is wrong.

Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center

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