I have spent many hours of the last week in conversation with Egyptians, both with supporters of the removal of the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi and his supporters gathered in their tens of thousands around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. This follows a similar visit in the second week of July in the immediate aftermath of the “coup”.
Last Thursday all the indications were that the Egyptian police and army were preparing to clear the areas of Cairo occupied by the supporters of the ousted President Morsi. Hospitals were being readied, local TV news channels were preparing the population for the action and operational detail about the use of incapacitating chemical weapons was rife. The re-ascendant military, with a leader intoxicated by a month’s popular and media adoration, appeared to have decided once again to violently suppress political Islam.
On Friday morning the anticipated bloody suppression of the pro-Morsi demonstrations had not materialised. I believe the combined weight of US and EU opinion, trenchantly delivered to the Egyptian military, helped stay their hand. However all the ingredients for a bloody civil war remain. This disaster has been delayed, not averted.
Two different narratives infuse Egyptian discourse and alarmingly there is precious little overlap between the two. It divides families and society and there is an urgent need for the two sides to start listening to and understanding each other.
The Islamist camp is infused with a righteous indignation, as the forces of old, corrupt and rotten Egypt unite to try and drive them underground once again. This indignation is lethally reinforced by a willingness to die for their beliefs and a determination that they are not going to be driven from the political field as they were before.
On the other side is a rich contempt for the dogma in their midst. There is a dose of the contempt of the rich for the dispossessed and their failure to be proper Egyptians, with more regard for their faith than their country. There is a lazy misappreciation of their fellow citizens and a total failure to acknowledge that, among the easily vilified extreme manifestations of an authoritarian ideology, are an awful lot of decent people motivated by high ideals and with an actual record of delivery of social justice in a land rife with extreme poverty. This wilful ignorance and suppression of the narrative and the reality of life for their fellow Egyptians is at the heart of the current route to disaster in Egypt.
Fear stalks the forces of the old order. Fear of an authoritarian ideology that will rob the wealthy and the newly established middle class of their personal liberty, their property and their status. There is the spectre of a religious state whose politics and private and public life would resemble that of a Sunni version of Iran. This is a fear the Islamists in government carelessly managed to reinforce. There is fear of impoverishment as a narrowly based ideological government, infused with medieval religious rectitude, lays waste to the Egyptian economy, which, given the economy’s precariousness, is a clear and present danger to the daily life of millions of Egyptians.
There is also fear in the military establishment, the dominating force in Egyptian life, that they will be brought to account, a profound danger to the economic interests of far too many well-placed Egyptians. They will not lightly concede proper civil control and accountability.
Then there is the fear of the past. Order has been sustained in Egypt over at least the last three decades by police conduct which bears more hallmarks of Egypt’s Ottoman heritage than an accountable criminal justice system. The police and state security are trapped with a record that does not bear examination. They have much to fear from future accountability and therefore little to lose by the use of lethal force in restoring the old order.
So an awful lot of decent people, who have an internal narrative about themselves that is consistent with their personal experience, are prepared to die and the hysterical characterisation of them in the Egyptian media, alarmingly believed by far too many otherwise rational people, may see the forces of law and order make this a reality.
If political Islam is violently suppressed, with thousands more dead and injured, this may be only the beginning. In Algeria in the 1990s it took the Islamists nine months to get an insurgency going once democracy had been denied to them. Perhaps 100,000 or more perished as a consequence. Egypt could be much, much, worse.
For western liberals there are uncomfortable choices to be made. The immediate imperative is to avert the horrifying prospect of catastrophe in Egypt today. That means stopping our military and political allies in Egypt from taking the path to disaster. We must make clear that failure to find a way to allow the Islamists back into the democratic space is simply unacceptable. Suppressing the movement and putting its leaders on trial on trumped-up charges must be prevented.
Failure to find a way to incorporate political Islam in democracy, however uncomfortable its ideology is for secular liberals, will mean we have given them little alternative but to find other means of expression. Inevitably, some of this would be violent. These forces have their expression in Britain too and we need to be clear that they have their place here in our democracy and we will support them having their place in democracy elsewhere. Our national interests are absolutely engaged in Egypt, quite apart from the prospect of a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe in that country, which should concern us all.
Crispin Blunt is a British Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party. This article first appeared on guardian.co.uk