Egyptians Paying the Price for Reckless Leadership

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Three days after Egypt’s so-called “bloodless coup,” it is clear that there is nothing bloodless about the current situation. The streets of Cairo are once again filthy with the familiar detritus of mob violence, after supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi clashed with a crowd of thousands celebrating his removal in Tahrir Square. At least thirty-six people were killed in nationwide violence last night, in the wake of what has been described as a popularly backed military coup. Most died of bullet wounds, but in a particularly gruesome incident in Luxor, three Coptic Christians were burned to death in a sectarian arson attack.

Today in Cairo, coils of barbed wire protrude onto sidewalks and intersections. The streets are littered with rocks and fragments of broken asphalt that Morsi supporters allegedly used as weapons against the anti-Morsi crowd. Without the flattering glow of fireworks and laser pointers that have illuminated this historic square for the past two nights, the cluster of dilapidated tents that reappeared here this past week looks like a tired refugee camp. Near the 6th of October bridge, the focal point of the clashes, work crews are sweeping up broken glass. One man is hosing down a sinister-looking stain that he says is blood. When I asked him what happened here last night, he tells me, “War.”

His response may be hyperbolic, but it speaks to the tragedy of what has transpired in Egypt over the past seventy-two hours. Despite token rhetorical commitments to non-violence, the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, and non-Islamist political figures have taken a series of miscalculated decisions that made last night’s bloodshed inevitable. And now the Egyptian people are paying a heavy price for the reckless provocations of their leaders. As Barbara Ibrahim, director of the American University in Cairo’s John D. Gerhart Center, reacted in real-time to the July 5 clashes on Twitter: “Tragic to watch Egyptian youth fighting/maiming each other over the bad decisions made for past two years by old men.”

The battle lines were drawn on June 3, when President Morsi made a startlingly defiant speech—as hundreds of thousands of protesters besieged his palace to demand his resignation—in which he harped on the elected “legitimacy” of his government at least fifty-four times and vowed to serve out the remainder of his four-year term. The speech came hours before the army’s forty-eight-hour ultimatum, threatening military intervention unless Morsi agreed to meet the demands of protesters, expired. Morsi passed up a critical opportunity to call for restraint on both sides, and instead concluded with ambiguous references to “blood” and “jihad” —which many supporters interpreted as an open call to arms. Meanwhile, senior Brotherhood official Mohamed al-Beltagy seemed to endorse martyrdom when he warned that a military coup would only succeed “over our dead bodies” and called for a “popular intifada.” While the Brotherhood’s spokesman, Gehad al-Haddad, called on supporters to remain peaceful and denied directing them to march toward the anti-Morsi demonstration at Tahrir Square, leaders should have been aware that any call for mass mobilization of a polarized and heavily armed public had the potential to provoke catastrophic violence.

The military’s statements have been no less provocative. Also on June 3, the army issued a statement vowing to sacrifice blood to defend the Egyptian people against “terrorists or fools.” Police, whose animosity toward the Brotherhood has been festering for months, jumped at the opportunity to side with anti-Morsi protesters and welcomed the intervention of the army “for the sake of national security.” The reawakening of the Interior Ministry as a politicized actor and instrument for the enforcement of martial law is disconcertingly reminiscent of their role it played in Hosni Mubarak’s police state, in which the core function of state security personnel was to protect the ruling party from its political opponents. 

Since the military announced the suspension of the constitution on July 5 and transferred interim executive powers to Egypt’s highest judge, Adly Mansour, the interim government has wasted no time in launching a vengeful campaign of reprisals against the Muslim Brotherhood: Arrest warrants have been issued for 300 of the group’s members; several top officials are being questioned on charges of inciting the killing of protesters and their assets have been ordered frozen; Morsi is expected to face, among other charges, accusations that he insulted the judiciary and collaborated with “foreign entities”—namely Hamas—to escape from the Wadi al-Natroun prison during the 2011 uprising; and several Islamist television channels were abruptly taken off air.   

Meanwhile, prominent non-Islamist figures who have traditionally been vocal proponents of due process and press freedom have remained silent in the face of what the Brotherhood’s top legal advisor has quite fairly described as a “witch hunt,” and some have openly endorsed the reprisals. Mohamed ElBaradei, who is expected to be nominated as Egypt’s next prime minister, defended the arrests of top Brotherhood officials as “precautionary measures to avoid violence” because “they have been plotting.” Although he did also emphasize that “nobody should be detained or arrested … unless there is a clear accusation,” ElBaradei’s recent statements appear to be strangely inconsistent with his record of outspoken activism on civil liberties.

Prominent voices on both sides of the current standoff say they are committed to preventing violence, yet they are allowing a campaign of anti-Islamist reprisals that is likely to provoke further street battles and, over the long-run, promote extremism. In a telling statement on June 3, presidential adviser Essam al-Haddad warned that a military coup would send a message to the world that “democracy is not for Muslims.” Formerly militant Islamist groups such as al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, which formally renounced violence in 2003 and took a further step toward moderation in 2011 by launching a political party, may now feel that they are being punished for their decision to participate peacefully in politics. In an ominous indication of the current mood among more hardline Islamists, a widely circulated video shows a pro-Morsi protester warning Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi: “You have created a new Taliban and a new al-Qaeda in Egypt.”

While analysts and politicians engage in semantic sparring matches over whether or not the regime change in Egypt can properly be defined as a “coup,” what is indisputable is that the events of the past week have pushed this country toward an explosive ideological standoff in which political disagreements are being fought out in the streets, rather than rationally negotiated through democratic institutions. After last night’s stalemate, violence in Egypt is unfortunately likely to continue, and Egypt’s fractured political forces cannot afford to waste time blaming one another. While it is the right of every Egyptian to peacefully demonstrate, this right comes with a moral duty to prevent protests from degenerating into urban warfare. After a week of violence and at least seventy casualties, it is now time for the Brotherhood and Egypt’s new interim government to stop using the threat of street mobilization as a bargaining chip in conflicts that must ultimately be resolved through dialogue and political institutions—not mob violence. Until the country’s leaders are willing to negotiate in good faith, Egyptians will continue to pay a heavy price for their reckless brinksmanship. 

Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School currently based in Cairo. You can find her on Twitter @MaraRevkin. 

Photo: Mohamed Gamal El-Din

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