Egypt’s Generals and Islamists Are Locked in a Dangerous Duel

Yet another burst of violence in Egypt has left dozens dead, raising anew questions about the country’s political and economic trajectory.

It has been three months since Egypt’s armed forces removed the country’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and jailed him and his collaborators. Supporters of the deposed government and the interim administration alike have become locked into strategies that show little sign of success. Now may be a good time for both sides to take a step back and examine the potential perils of their chosen paths.

The latest round of clashes between Mr Morsi’s sympathisers and security forces backed by the interim government began on Friday and escalated on Sunday, the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s revered offensive to retake the Sinai Peninsula from Israel.

The violence followed the same script as previous street battles since the popularly supported July 3 coup. Demonstrators, mostly peaceful, attempted to reach Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, where the armed forces had called for a nationalist rally. Demonstrators were confronted by police who fired teargas and began beating them. Protesters lobbed rocks at the police in response, eliciting gunfire in which at least 50 people were killed.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, acting under the banner of the Anti-Coup Alliance, have responded to the deaths by calling for yet more protests, beginning on Tuesday on university campuses around the country. Although supposedly committed to allowing peaceful protests, the security forces will probably respond to any disturbances the same way they have for decades: with brute force. It is a pattern that will probably be repeated again and again over the coming months.

The conflict may very well spoil the interim government’s plans for economic revival and derail any attempt to put Egypt back on a democratic course. And it raises the question as to whether either side has seriously thought out its endgame for the dangerous duel now taking place.

“Neither of them is able to score a decisive victory over the other,” says Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at American University of Cairo. “This shows that a political solution has to be developed and adopted. This idea of either side trying to impose a solution is not going to work.”

So far the interim government has failed to either include the Brotherhood in the political process or to neutralise its disruptions. Ministers like to pretend everything would be just perfect if only “terrorists” would just stop taking to the streets. In attempting to crush, belittle and marginalise the Brotherhood, the government risks creating the very threat it warns about – a serious terrorist menace across the country.

The Brotherhood, too, seems absorbed in a strategy of escalating protests without considering the end point. More and more “martyrs” may bring more people out into the streets and provoke the armed forces to ever higher levels of brutality. But to what end? More disorder drags Egyptians deeper into the misery and poverty that the Brotherhood has pledged for nine decades to alleviate.

“We clearly see the confrontation strategy prevailing,” said a western diplomat in Cairo. “Obviously from the government side, but the demonstrations of Friday and Sunday were aimed at reaching Tahrir, which is a red line. People were resolved to fight all the way.”

Diplomats, analysts and political insiders speak of a core of liberal-minded individuals within the interim government genuinely eager to reach a compromise with the Brotherhood as well as an up-and-coming younger cadre of Brotherhood loyalists eager to move the organisation past the Morsi presidency and the coup. But so far there has been little sign of any kind of deal, or even a substantive dialogue beyond press releases and public statements. A visit by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last week yielded no ideas for resolving the impasse.

With the economy already on life support and security fraying in parts of the country, time is one thing Egypt does not have. More and more, the political crisis in Egypt is beginning to resemble two trains heading towards each other at full throttle.

Source: The Financial Times