Only democracy can end Egypt's bloody crisis
The crisis in Egypt will only deepen without demilitarisation and a rethinking of the international community's muddled policy,
The Observer, Saturday 17 August 2013 22.00 BST
Egypt: on the brink of a descent into ever worse bloodshed. Photograph: Louafi Larbi/Reuters
The strategy of the military-led coup to remove the government ofMohamed Morsi in Egypt was always fraught with danger. In a starkly divided country where one side declined to be governed by the Brotherhood, while the Brotherhood itself appeared uninterested in political pluralism, the risk of violence was always present.
For those who doubted the power of the country's post-revolutionary and unreformed "deep state", dominated as it is by the army, the judiciary and powerful economic interests backed by a servile state media, the events of the past week have been brutally instructive.
The murderous crackdown on the Brotherhood's protest sit-ins following a previous massacre of supporters of the deposed Morsi has left hundreds dead. With utter inevitability, a disciplined organisation that has survived and thrived through eight decades of persecution, pushed back on Friday with more equally inevitable bloodshed. Yesterday's violence at the al-Fath mosque, and the proposal to dissolve the Brotherhood, are both more likely to deepen the divide than to herald the start of a resolution to Egypt's crisis.
If a metaphor was required for the desperate state of affairs that Egypt has been plunged into over the past week, it was supplied by the video footage of men jumping from one of the Nile bridges 40 feet on to concrete to avoid gunfire.
The argument has been propounded that the coup might allow the "restoration of democracy". The reality is that it swept away a deeply flawed but still recognisably democratic period of transition, ushering in – in quick order – horrific massacres followed by the re-imposition of Egypt's notorious emergency law allowing military detention and removing due judicial process.
At each step in the confrontation the opportunity offered to the military and its fig-leaf "interim government" to step back from the brink has been rejected. Almost daily calls directly from the US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to reject a bloody clampdown were ignored as was the offer of a political plan to break the deadlock, ironically accepted by the Brotherhood's leadership.
The Brotherhood, too, must take a large portion of the blame. Although it was the victim of a coup, its tactics over the past two years in its pursuit of its own factional interest have alienated large numbers of potential allies, while it has seemed determined since the coup to pursue a path that would lead to confrontation to validate its sense of victimhood.
The result has set not only the violent and unreformed security forces against the Brotherhood but armed civilian against armed civilian, incited by media and government officials.
What is so dangerous right now is that neither side can conceivably triumph. The Brotherhood is too big, too well entrenched in so many parts of Egyptian life that the notion that it can simply be stamped out is nonsensical. It might be bloodily repressed, but it cannot be snuffed out. The Egyptian military might believe that through excessive force it can return to the status quo ante of the Mubarak period, but the revolutionary dynamics have made that impossible.
But the international community must take a part of the blame for events occurring today. For two years, despite widespread evidence of continuing and widespread human rights abuses by Egyptian security forces, they have been allowed to act with impunity to the point they felt able to launch a coup. In the coup's aftermath Egypt's biggest military ally, the United States, which provides $1.3bn annually in largely military aid, has seemed utterly unwilling to call recent events what they most self evidently are. That is because, as a White House spokesman has made clear, calling a coup a coup carries legal obligations, not least the suspension of that aid.
In the past week, however, the case for retaining Egypt's aid has become increasingly untenable. It has become abundantly clear that US leverage on General Sisi is negligible, removing the argument that the aid buys any influence. The argument, too, that others would step in to fill any gap – which Saudi Arabia, allegedly another key US ally, has already suggested it might do – is also not a reason for inaction.
The reality is that one of the driving factors in Egypt's continuing instability is the continuing economic crisis sparked by the revolution, which has persuaded many that the coup held the prospect of stability. What needs to be dramatised is that there are profound deep consequences of acting like a pariah state and that includes being treated like one.
Last month the IMF abandoned negotiations over a $4.8bn loan, while Denmark announced last week it was suspending aid. All this comes on top of growing evidence that large foreign companies and investors are becoming ever more wary of the Arab world's most populous nation. In the past few days Shell, General Motors, Electrolux and Toyota have shut down their plants, while major European tour companies – a crucial and struggling sector of the Egyptian economy – have once again pulled back. It is worth recalling that during the revolution it was the shutting down of large sectors of Egypt's economy that was a key factor in persuading the army to turn against the former president, Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, the message that needs to be delivered urgently is that, without a rapid demilitarisation of Egypt's politics and withdrawal of the army from the political stage, Egypt's crisis is only likely to deepen, while a return to a peaceful democratic transition will bring tangible rewards not just for the self-interested elites but for all Egyptians.
That requires an inclusive and pluralistic political process that includes all sides, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a release of political prisoners, including that organisation's leadership, and the ending of a culture of impunity for acts of violence. It also requires a rapid rethinking of the international community's muddled, disengaged and dangerous policy on Egypt that has flip-flopped wildly. It is all the more urgent because the alternative is a steep and violent descent into ever worse bloodshed.
For now, Egypt is not suffering the instability of Syria or even Libya but the risk is growing by the day. The lessons of those two countries should serve as the impetus for all involved to step back from the brink