Egypt takes a giant step towards civil war

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Sign of things to come Blood-soaked bodies in Cairo, Photo: Reuters
Sign of things to come Blood-soaked bodies in Cairo, Photo: Reuters

For more than a month, Egypt had been teetering on the edge of an abyss. On 8 July, the violent confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the army in front of the Republican Guards Officers’ Club where the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, is believed to be detained, may have begun the long fall into it. Fifty-one civilians died, all but three seemingly victims of firing by the army and police. Accounts of what triggered it, given to The New York Times and The Guardian by MB activists who claim to have been present, tally closely. After a night filled with protests and counter-protests, a large numbers of MB activists had gathered in front of the club to demand Morsi’s release. When they were offering morning prayers, the army opened fire with teargas shells and firing over the demonstrators’ heads. As the crowd was retreating, the army apparently went berserk and opened fire with live ammunition.

The difference between the two accounts lies in the ascription of blame. The NYT leaves its readers in no doubt that the firing was one-sided and unprovoked. The Guardian leans in this direction but also gives the military’s explanation, that a terrorist group with “large quantities of firearms, ammunition and Molotov cocktails” had tried to break into the compound and attacked security forces. Two cops and an army officer died and 40 soldiers were injured.

Emotions are running so high that neither version can be accepted at face value. But no matter who started the bloodbath, it would further polarise the population between those who want to set up a theocratic State and those who want a democracy based on individual liberty. This polarisation has already begun. The orthodox (Salafi) Al Nour Party, which gained 27 percent of the vote in the 2011 polls, has decided to separate itself from the liberals’ demand for Morsi to step down. Al Nour had earlier sided with the army when it asked all political parties to resolve their differences over the Constitution-making process and put a functioning democracy in place. Al Nour had stayed with it when it removed Morsi from power, but the anti-Islamist hue given to the army’s action on 8 July has forced it to withdraw its support.

A few more confrontations and civilian deaths ascribed to a military already tainted by complaisance with Israel and the West would suffice to complete the descent into civil war. Then, it will be a battle between the army and the Islamists, who will doubtless be reinforced by an inflow of jihadis being spawned by the economic collapse of Libya and Tunisia.

As the battle intensifies, Salafi TV and radio channels based in Saudi Arabia and the UAE will accuse the soldiers of being traitors to Islam and toadies of infidels who don’t want god’s writ to run in the Muslim world. The propaganda barrage will be aimed not only at the soldiers but also their families. Preachers will denounce them from every minaret and urge the people to boycott them.

Will the army be able to withstand the onslaught as the Syrian army has? Or will it go the way of the army of the Shah of Iran? Unfortunately, the 67 percent vote for the MB and Al Nour in the 2011 polls suggests that Egypt is more like Iran in 1978 than Syria in 2011. This makes it likely that the army will eventually cave in. The real killing will begin then.

There can be no doubt that the army over-reacted. But did it open fire upon peaceful protesters who were saying their morning prayers or did it come under fire first? It requires only a moment’s reflection to perceive the holes in the MB’s version. All newscasters have reported that the firing began during morning prayers at 4 am. But on 8 July, sunrise occurred at 5.01 am and the dawn came at 4.34 am. At 4 am, therefore, it was still pitch dark. This is way too early for the muezzin’s call to pray.

Since time immemorial, the pre-dawn hour is the preferred time for launching military assaults. The army’s version that the Islamists launched an assault to get Morsi out at this hour is not implausible. All the Islamists would have needed to do to create this impression was fire at the army and police pickets from a few points in the mass of humans. This would have been sufficient to provoke an indiscriminate return fire from tired, sleepy and panicky soldiers who could not see the enemy and judge its intentions.

The other gaping hole in the Islamist account is its failure to ascribe a motive for the army’s killing spree. It is abundantly clear that the army was not itching to come back to power. It only asked Morsi to re-establish a political consensus that would restore his moral authority, or step down. When Morsi showed no inclination to do either, and his supporters began to describe the army’s action as a military coup, only then did it arrest him and his lieutenants. By then, Morsi had left no one in any doubt that he intended to use his powers as president to ensure that Egypt became a theocratic Islamic State.

This had been the MB’s aim from day one of the Arab Spring. It had piggybacked upon the democracy movement in January 2011 but showed its fangs within days of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster when its cohorts literally drove the icons of the democracy movement, Mohamad ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, out of Tahrir Square. It did so again by turning a blind eye to attacks on Coptic Christians in which a church was burned down, killing 23 people.

In March, it traded upon the loathing for Mubarak to secure an amendment to the Constitution that replaced the first-past-the-post voting system with proportional representation. This was a tacit admission that enough people still supported Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) for it to emerge as the largest single party and win a disproportionate number of seats. To pre-empt this, the interim government dissolved the NDP in April and banned it from taking part in the polls. For good measure, it also abolished the women’s quota in Parliament. Not surprisingly, in a religion-dominated election funded by the Saudi religious establishment, the MB gained 45 percent of the seats and Al Nour, 22 percent. The secular parties gained 33 percent but were fragmented and therefore impotent.

The new Parliament lost no time in electing a 100-member Constituent Assembly, dubbed the Shura Council, but was itself declared illegitimate on 14 June 2012 by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which found that the major political parties had violated the electoral laws. Technically this made the Shura Council also illegitimate. But the court reserved judgment hoping it would still manage to produce a Constitution.

The simmering conflict between the secularists and the Islamists came to a head 10 days later when Morsi won the polls. His first act was to recall the dissolved Parliament on 8 July. Two days later, he backed away from a showdown with the courts, saying he would resolve the issue through discussions with the judges. But instead of putting the Shura Council also on hold, he asked it to speed up the framing of the new Constitution.

In November, when this was almost ready, he passed a presidential decree that gave him sweeping lawmaking and administrative powers, and immunised the new Constitution from judicial scrutiny. The Supreme Judicial Council promptly annulled his proclamation on 8 December but the Shura Council speeded up its work. The Constitution it produced in December was blatantly Islamist. Twenty-six of the 100 members representing Christians, women and journalists had walked out of the council. They were replaced by 11 reservists. The 85 who voted included not a single Christian and only four women who were known Islamists. Article 2 proclaimed that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the primary source of legislation. The Constitution was passed by a referendum in which only 32-34 percent of the electorate voted.

In May, Morsi began to use his newly assumed powers to replace thousands of senior judges with Islamists. In June, he replaced the governors of 17 provinces with hand-picked Islamists. One of them, Adel el Khayat, was a former member of the Al Gamaa al Islamiyya, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s Afghan Jihad, which had killed 54 Swiss and German tourists in Luxor in 1997. Morsi must have wanted to send a message, because he chose El Khayat to head Luxor province.

By mid-June, democrats had been left in no doubt about where Morsi intended to take Egypt. They responded with Tamarod (rebellion), one of the largest mass movements in history, which claimed to have collected 22 million signatures asking Morsi to resign. But he didn’t budge. Only then, as the death toll mounted, did the army decide to step in. This time, they were greeted as saviours.

The Islamists needed a massacre of their own people to galvanise support and demonise the army. The army, by contrast, needed nothing less. The Islamists have won round one. With some help from an uncomprehending global media, they may also win the ones that follow.

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