Cairo crackdown inevitable to avoid loss of credibility

Violent clampdown could gain support if Brotherhood attacks continue

Riot police and army personnel take up positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi around the area of Rabaa Adawiya square, where they are camping, in Cairo . Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Riot police and army personnel take up positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi around the area of Rabaa Adawiya square, where they are camping, in Cairo . Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Thu, Aug 15, 2013, 01:00

The violent crackdown on sit-ins in Cairo became inevitable when the Muslim Brotherhood replied to an invitation for dialogue from sheikh al-Azhar Ahmed Tayeb, the Sunni world’s most senior cleric, by saying the movement would attend if the aim of the talks was restoration of “constitutional legitimacy”.

By this, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad meant reinstatement of president Mohamed Morsi, revival of the Brotherhood-drafted constitution and restoration of the dissolved upper house of parliament where the Brotherhood and ultra- conservative Salafis had a solid majority.

Haddad’s remark coincided with a street battle in central Cairo between Brotherhood supporters and shopkeepers and residents who demanded an end to disruptive sit-ins and marches. If the army and security forces had not intervened, anti-Morsi elements were increasingly likely to respond violently to pro-Morsi protests.

By tolerating Brotherhood sit-ins and marches for so long, the caretaker authorities, loath to use force, gave the Brotherhood the impression violence was a threat but not a viable option. Consequently, the military and security forces lost face and credibility over the six-week stand-off that the vast majority of Egyptians wanted to end peacefully.

Now that force has been used and scores of Egyptians have died or been wounded, some Egyptians who sought an end to the stand-off have criticised the security forces for employing excessive force. Others blame the Brotherhood for refusing to compromise and, as a number of commentators have put it, creating “a pile of martyrs” to gain public sympathy for the cause of “legitimacy”.

However, the crackdown could win wide popular support if Brotherhood supporters continue to respond to the dispersal of the sit-ins by staging attacks on police stations, government offices, and churches.

The polarisation of Egyptian society is certain to be exacerbated by the crackdown but people are not divided equally between pro- and anti-Morsi camps. A large majority has moved into the anti-Morsi camp because Egyptians long to return to normal life.

On July 22nd a public opinion poll conducted by Egypt’s independent Baseera organisation indicated 71 per cent of Egyptians opposed pro-Morsi demonstrations while only 20 per cent sympathised with those protesting. This suggested the Brotherhood could at that time depend only on traditional core support, estimated at 15-20 per cent of the country’s 83 million people.

Since the end of July, Egyptian commentators argue, the Brotherhood’s approval rating has fallen below this level due to its refusal to concede defeat and negotiate with the caretaker government.

This does not mean the Brotherhood and its backers, particularly among the young, will surrender. If violence continues, the government could ban the 85-year-old movement, recently registered as a non-governmental organisation, and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.

The security agencies could follow up with mass arrests of Brotherhood leaders and activists and extend the state of emergency, due to last a month, in order to return as the power behind the caretaker government and, ultimately, the parliament and president due to be elected next year in line with the road map drawn up by the army and interim political appointees.

If this were to happen, Egypt would have travelled full circle from the 2011 popular uprising against military rule back to military rule over 2½ years.

It must be remembered that the successor to ousted president Hosni Mubarak was the military high command that was reshuffled and sent back to barracks by Morsi a year ago and is now back in charge, at least temporarily, thanks to the Brotherhood’s refusal to accept his overthrow.

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