Attacks on Protesters in Cairo Were Calculated to Provoke, Some Say

The ferocity of the attacks by security forces on Islamist protesters in Cairo this week appears to have been a deliberate calculation of the military-appointed government to provoke violence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, a number of Arab and Western historians of Middle East politics said Friday.

The objective, they said in interviews, was to demonize the Islamists in the eyes of Egypt’s broader populace, validate the July 3 ouster of the Islamist president and subvert any possibility that dialogue would reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt’s mainstream politics.

While many said it seemed premature to call the violence in Egypt a precursor to civil war, they said the hatreds unleashed on all sides presaged a possible future of low-level insurgency by embittered, alienated Islamists. Some drew parallels to Algeria, where the military also intervened to subvert Islamist ascendance in democratic electoral politics more than two decades ago, leading to a horrific period of mayhem and repression.

“Given the propaganda of the state-supported media in Cairo, tarring the Muslim Brotherhood with the terrorist brush, making them enemies, not just a nuisance, is setting them up for being completely crushed and eliminated,” said Hugh Roberts, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Tufts University. “To use an Algerian term, eradication.”

Many said the events since the forced removal of Mohamed Morsi, the first freely elected president, suggested that Egypt’s military commanders had concluded beforehand that they would gain nothing from negotiations with the Brotherhood, and would rather deal with it as an insurgent group that presented a security threat, not as a popular political movement.

None saw evidence that Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s top military authority, and his subordinates in the Interior Ministry and the police had been moved by foreign pressure to compromise with the Islamists, despite public lip service to the politics of inclusion.

“Clearly for some segments of the security apparatus, there was an anxiety over the reinclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process,” said Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “Precisely because these negotiations might have gotten somewhere, they wanted to stop the Muslim Brotherhood in its tracks. You could pick no better strategy than the heavy-handed manner in which they dealt with these protests.”

Overwhelming force was used to purge the Islamist protest encampments in two Cairo squares on Wednesday despite pledges of restraint and open discussion about the use of more passive strategies like a blockade. More than 600 people were killed in those assaults, which became a catalyst for angry Islamist reprisals, many directed against the police and Egypt’s Christian minority.

“The crackdown on the 14th was intended to provoke the Islamists to react violently — I’m fairly convinced of that,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a journalist and political analyst who blogs as the Arabist, a widely followed Web site. “If you look at what happened since the July 3 coup, the international community wanted to see some kind of compromise arrangement, and I think the military in Egypt felt trapped by that, felt that it would have to make concessions.”

Mr. Amrani, a Moroccan American who has lived in Egypt for years, said he believed there had been “an understanding between the military and the security services, whose entire history has been against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secularists, who saw this as a historic chance to put the Muslim Brotherhood out of business.”

While the consequence might return Egypt to another era of repression, he said, “they felt they could live with that — there would not be any sharing of power with the Islamists.”

Many Islamists in Egypt have been making such accusations since Mr. Morsi was deposed, while the military-appointed government and its supporters have denied them. At the same time, sincere language of tolerance and restraint in Egypt, once heard during the innocent days of the 2011 revolution, has faded.

“When everybody in Egypt talks about inclusive politics, they’re lying,” said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Mr. Cook and others attributed some responsibility for the events of this past week to the Islamists, saying violence appeared inevitable after protest leaders at the Cairo encampments had exhorted followers to martyr themselves if attacked.

“I don’t think you can get much clearer than that,” Mr. Cook said. “They’re asking the people to die for a cause.”

Mr. Roberts noted that the comparisons between Egypt and Algeria were limited. In Algeria, the military intervened to nullify elections before the winning Islamist candidates could even take office, while in Egypt the Islamists won elections and their president served for a year.

In Algeria, the Islamist political organization was young and untested, while the Muslim Brotherhood has been part of Egyptian life for 85 years, much of it as an outlawed group, with much organizational skill.

Partly for that reason, Mr. Roberts said, it was by no means clear that the Brotherhood would be crippled in the new period of uncertainty now confronting Egypt. Likewise, he said, Egypt’s armed forces do not necessarily have the upper hand.

“A question here is, which of the two has bitten off more than they can chew,” he said. “It may be the army. They made a calculation but they’ve gambled on it. The Muslim Brotherhood has shown more staying power, more willingness to take a beating.”

Others agreed that Egypt was in such turmoil that it was impossible to assess the outcomes.

“Clearly today Egypt is not on a trajectory to democracy, pluralism, tolerance. It is polarized, divided and bloody,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“We’re back to the security state,” she said. “The more optimistic thing I’ll say is: I don’t think that’s sustainable. It’s not the same as the 1990s. The Egyptian people are mobilized, they refuse to live under a government that represses their dignity.”

Source: New York Times

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