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Egypt's military crackdown could quickly backfire

January 24, 2014 at 8:54 am

It has now been nearly three weeks since Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president in decades, was ousted by the military on 3 July. The army intervention came after days of mass protests against Morsi’s rule. He was widely perceived as incompetent, having failed to improve the country’s dire economic situation and pushing through his party’s Islamist agenda without giving a voice to secularists and liberals.

However, the situation is far from clear-cut, as the last few weeks have demonstrated. News of Morsi’s fall was greeted by jubilation in Tahrir Square, the same site where, two years earlier, protesters cheered the fall of military dictator Hosni Mubarak. There was some irony in the fact that this public space, associated with revolution and freedom the world over, was now cheering the military for pushing out a democratically elected leader. Morsi’s faults were many, but he and his Muslim Brotherhood party had won three consecutive elections since 2011. The protesters in this iconic square maintain that they have not encouraged a coup, but staged a successful mass protest movement to get their country’s march towards democracy back on track.

While Tahrir Square remains the main geographical area of protest for those who opposed Morsi, another centre of public protest has sprung up. In eastern Cairo, tented encampments fill the area around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Protesters, mainly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, display pictures of Morsi and say they will not move until he is reinstated. According to the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, who has been in Cairo, “people are selling thick bamboo sticks which they insist are for self-defence against soldiers and police”.

Indeed, in the weeks since Morsi was ousted, what began as a bloodless coup has quickly escalated. Scores of Morsi supporters have been killed in clashes with police and the army. The Muslim Brotherhood supporters camped at the mosque have described the worst of these clashes as a “massacre”. The security services say they were acting in self-defence after provocation by protesters. Either way, there are worrying overtones of harsh clampdowns in Mubarak’s era, and of events in Syria, where brutal government suppression of protests resulted in a bloody civil war.

At the present moment, it would be highly premature to suggest that Egypt will deteriorate into another Syria – but the pro-Morsi movement is growing in size and significance. This week, protests attracted tens of thousands of people. Meanwhile, a group of expatriate Egyptians have launched a group named “Egyptians Abroad for Democracy”. It is unlikely the group will have much impact on the ground, but the name is telling. For many, the issue has ceased to be about Morsi himself, but about the wider implications for democracy in Egypt. One of the groups gathered at the mosque calls itself the Legitimacy Coalition.

Commentators across the board are united on one thing: calling in the army to get rid of a democratically elected president – regardless of how incompetent that leader may be – sets a very dangerous precedent. Indeed, many detractors now point to the fact that members of the old guard, prominent in Mubarak’s time, are already returning to the forefront under the interim regime. Eleven of 34 cabinet members were politicians under Mubarak. The Islamists who took the reins under Morsi have been pushed out entirely.

The two sides are becoming increasingly divided. News reports from the ground reflect that some of those joining the pro-Morsi protests are not doing so out of any great dedication to the former president, but because he was democratically elected. On the other side, people are adamant that Morsi’s fall was the result of a grassroots indictment of his failings in power: the ultimate expression of people power.

The BBC’S Frank Gardner argues that this rapid return to the old way of doing things sends a dangerous message to Islamists: “It risks leaving them with the conclusion that the democratic process the west has touted for so long is an avenue closed to them, prompting some to turn to the bullet instead of the ballot.”

This is a decisive moment for Egypt. Will the Brotherhood return to its position of non-violent opposition? Or are we about to see a sustained uprising against the new authorities? This week, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood called for “an uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal their revolution with tanks”. Meanwhile, Egypt’s slow motion economic crisis rolls on, with government coffers emptying, tourism slowing nearly to a halt, and unemployment and crime on the up. These economic issues do not bode well for stability.

At the moment, Egypt does not look like another Syria. Swathes of the country are unaffected by the current unrest, and there is little appetite for war. But as anyone watching the Middle East over the past few years can see, things can change quickly.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.