Why is Egypt bleeding? Because its security forces are re-asserting their power and authority and the Ikhwan-al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) is resisting.
Since the police with the backing of the powerful military began a brutal crackdown on the Ikhwan and its supporters on 14 August 2013, at least 800 people have been killed. This includes a small number of police personnel allegedly executed by the Ikhwan.
The on-going tussle for power between the military and the Ikhwan has a long history behind it. For a brief moment in 1952 they joined hands in the overthrow of King Farouk but soon they parted company and for decades there has been bitter antagonism and animosity between these two actors who have dominated Egyptian politics for so long. The Ikhwan was in fact banned by Gamal Abdul Nasser, then Deputy Prime Minister, in 1954, following an attempt by members of the movement to assassinate him. Nasser became President in 1956. The Ikhwan remained outlawed under his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who like Nasser, were military officers.
During this period there were frequent crackdowns against Ikhwan members and leaders. Imprisonment, arbitrary detention and torture characterised the lives of these Ikhwan activists. Nonetheless, they managed to sustain their support base and organisational structure. The social services that they provided and their welfare work endeared them to the people especially the poor and disadvantaged who constitute such a huge portion of Egyptian society.
After Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011, Ikhwan was legalised. It entered the political process through a party called the Freedom and Justice Party. It was this party that won the largest number of seats in the Parliamentary Election held at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. In the June 2012 Presidential Election — the first free and fair presidential election in Egypt’s history — it was the candidate from the Freedom and Justice Party, Dr. Mohamed Morsi, who secured 52% of the popular vote. As a democratically elected President, Morsi initiated a referendum on a new national constitution. 64% of those who voted endorsed the Constitution.
Morsi’s and the Ikhwan’s proven democratic credentials frightened the military. The military elite saw Ikhwan’s popularity as a direct challenge to its power. This is why it used Egypt’s High Constitutional Court made up of judges inclined towards the military to order the dissolution of the democratically elected parliament on 14 June 2012. The judiciary was also manipulated to curb the powers of the President in matters pertaining to security, defence, foreign policy and the national budget. A number of policy decisions that Morsi made also angered the military top brass.
The military with its strong grip over the economy also sought to undermine efforts by the Morsi government to address various economic issues facing the people. It explains to some extent why the long queues of people waiting to purchase certain essentials that marked Morsi’s tenure disappeared shortly after he was ousted! Of course, Morsi himself failed to formulate effective solutions to critical problems such as unemployment and inflation. His administration was by and large inept. Because some of Ikhwan’s most prominent leaders such as its spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie, and Khairat el-Shater were the ones who actually wielded influence in Morsi’s administration, some of its policies veered towards exclusiveness alienating a significant segment of the non-Ikhwan populace.
All this provided ammunition to the military and other groups when they began to mobilise the masses against Morsi for the 3rd July coup. But Morsi’s shortcomings do not in any way justify the coup against a democratically elected leadership. If Morsi had to be removed, there was only one avenue available to the people: through a free and fair election. That is a fundamental principle in a democracy. Street demonstrations, however massive, do not legitimise coups. Besides, we now know that the “15 to 20 millions” who were supposed to have taken to the streets — as the veteran journalist Robert Fisk has pointed out — is a gross exaggeration which defies logic.
That US and some European leaders can use such outrageous claims to rationalise their reluctance to condemn a blatant military coup against a democratically elected leader is testimony to their hypocrisy as defenders of democracy. What explains their reluctance? It stems largely from their fear that Ikhwan, given its policy position on Israel, will not be as accommodative as the Egyptian military elite has been since the eighties on issues pertaining to their intimate ally’s “security concerns.” It is not surprising therefore that a number of US Senators and members of the Congress have emphasised over and over again that their most trustworthy partner in Egypt remains the military. They have also reminded President Obama that in the wake of the Egyptian turmoil, Israel must remain the US’s primary commitment. The Israeli regime itself had made it explicitly clear the moment Ikhwan re-surfaced as a political force to reckon with in the post-Mubarak era that it was suspicious of the movement.
Seen within this context, one should not attach any significance to criticisms from Washington, London and other Western capitals about the military’s “excessive force” and its killing of civilians. They are meant to mollify human rights groups at home and to project their international image as opponents of merciless killings. The litmus test is whether the US government will demand that Morsi be restored to his legitimate position as President of Egypt.
What this means is that it is unlikely that there will be strong pressure from the US upon the 3rd July coup makers to relinquish their power. At the most, the principal architect of the coup, General Abdul- Fattah al-Sisi, will exercise some restraint in his operations against Ikhwan. The fighting and the killing will go on. Ikhwan will not give up. If anything, the Ikhwan leadership and its rank-and-file may become even more determined to achieve justice for Morsi if the military decides to ban the Ikhwan — a proposal which may well exacerbate the situation.
If that happens, and the conflict between the military and Ikhwan continues, bloodshed and mayhem may plague Egypt for many years to come. The nation will sink into a morass. Such a prospect will be a disaster for the people. On the other hand, if in the midst of the conflict, Egypt makes some economic progress and resolves at least a portion of its economic woes, the situation may eventually stabilise.
However, the long-term consequences of suppressing Ikhwan will continue to challenge the nation and Muslims everywhere. Islamic groups and even states will conclude that democracy does not offer any hope. If their aspirations cannot be achieved through the democratic process, it would be better for them to resort to other means, including violent methods to realise their goals.
This is why it is so important for a democratic experiment in a major Arab-Muslim state like Egypt to succeed. For now, that experiment has suffered a colossal setback.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).