So Far, The Military Coup Looks Like It Will Be A Disaster For Egypt In The End
Nearly six months later, it's hard to find any good in the July military coup in Egypt.
In the nearly six months since the military coup that replaced the elected government of Mohammed Morsi with a military-controlled government that, much like the era that lasted from the elevation to power of Gamal Abdel Nassar in the late 1950s to the protests that led to the removal from power of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, things have not exactly gone very well. After re-assuming power, the military moved to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and any other group that opposed them, cracked down on independent journalists, and showed little hesitation in using overwhelming force to break up anti-government protests no matter how peaceful they might have been. Former President Morsi, meanwhile, remains in custody and will likely face trial sometime next year on charges of treason for actions taken while he served in office and, mostly recently, the entire Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization:
CAIRO — Egypt’s military-backed government on Wednesday designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, criminalizing the activities and finances of a movement that rose to power in national elections last year but has been crippled by a government crackdown since a coup in July.
The announcement was a stunning blow to the decades-old Islamist organization, which survived for years in the shadows and in prison cells under then-President Hosni Mubarak but reached the height of political power after his ouster in the 2011 uprising.
With the victory last year of Mohamed Morsi — a former Brotherhood leader — in Egypt’s first democratic presidential election, the movement was poised to realize its Islamist project. But it struggled to govern the country’s vast and bloated bureaucracy, and after Morsi’s ouster, it became the target of a campaign of arrests and killings.
Wednesday’s decree, which accused the Brotherhood of a deadly car bombing outside a security building Tuesday, broadened the government’s authority to move against the group.
Egyptian legal experts said the decree would shutter hundreds of charities and nongovernmental organizations affiliated with the Brotherhood, one of Egypt’s largest opposition groups. The organizations provide health care and other services to rural and urban areas that lack infrastructure.
Anyone who is a member of the Brotherhood, participates in its activities or promotes or funds the group will be subject to prosecution under the Egyptian penal code, analysts said. Membership in a terrorist group is punishable by five years in prison. The maximum penalty for providing weapons and ammunition to a domestic terrorist group is death.
Brotherhood officials could not be reached for comment. But a statement posted on the group’s official Twitter account called Wednesday’s declaration a “worthless decision from an illegal gov’t without any evidence and will not change anything in reality.”
“The protests are in the streets despite a law restricting them — and killings and prison sentences. All this has not changed the will of the people,” said Ibrahim Elsayed, a member of the Brotherhood’s political group, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Associated Press reported. “The decision has no value for us and is only worth the paper it is written on.”
The declaration by Egypt’s interim cabinet seems likely to harden further the divide between Morsi’s supporters and secular backers of the government ahead of a referendum on a new constitution scheduled for next month.
Morsi’s presidency faltered under an already crumbling economy and his controversial efforts to pass a new constitution, further isolating the increasingly unpopular Brotherhood, whose leaders began courting hard-line Islamists to bolster support.
After Wednesday’s announcement, the United States expressed concern about “the current atmosphere and its potential effects on a democratic transition in Egypt.”
“We think it is essential for Egypt to have an inclusive political process; it is the best means of restoring the stability that the Egyptian people want and that is necessary to the country’s economic recovery,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “There needs to be dialogue and political participation across the political spectrum.”
The only thing that labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and forbidding them from participating in the political process is likely to accomplish, of course, is to drive them underground and, quite probably guaranteed that their designation of the group as a terrorist group a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, when you are cutoff from any other manner in which to participate in the political life of the nature you are living in, the idea of taking up violence becomes far easier to justify to yourself. We’ve already seen plenty of acts of seemingly political violence in post-coup Egypt, much of it coming from the Sinai Peninsula but also incidents occurring in that part of Egypt to the west of the Suez Canal. Just days after the military government designated them as a terrorist group, for example, the Brotherhood, or somebody, seems to have responded:
The bus stood empty, most of its windows shattered, the result of a roadside bomb that exploded in Cairo on Thursday morning and injured five people. Police closed the road in both directions, and small crowds of onlookers gathered along the cordons. An officer presented to the crowds a bowl-shaped device, a second bomb, they said, discovered inside a roadside advertising box. Students carrying books, coming from the Islamic al-Azhar University, paused as they walked past.
The blast was the second in Egypt in three days. Fifteen people were killed in a much larger explosion, a suicide car bombing, according to the Interior Ministry, at a police headquarters in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura early on Tuesday. In response to the Mansoura bombing, the military-backed government officially branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a measure that deepens the military-backed government’s clampdown on the Islamist group following the military’s removal of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi from power in July. The new designation criminalizes membership in the organization and its activities and finances.
No evidence has surfaced linking the Muslim Brotherhood to either attack. The Brotherhood’s official media organs condemned the Mansoura bombing, and a separate group, Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for it. Nevertheless the government appears determined to use the violence as an opportunity to pursue its crackdown on the organization. “From [the security establishment’s] perspective, they see this as an opportunity to eradicate, once and for all, an organization that they hate. That takes precedence over everything else,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
Of course, violence, regardless of who might be responsible for it, may be exactly what the military wants:
Some experts suggest that a violent showdown suits the designs of hard-liners within Egypt’s security state. “It is obvious that there is a faction within this government that is pushing everything toward escalation and violence in order to force their opponents to resort to violence,” says Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.
The best evidence for that hypothesis may be the fact that the military isn’t limiting its crackdown to just the Muslim Brotherhood:
In recent weeks the military-led government has also extended the clampdown to include non-Islamist opposition groups who carry the torch of the January 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday a court sentenced three prominent activists who helped spearhead the 2011 revolt to three years in prison for violating a new law that criminalizes all street protests that take place without explicit government permission. The three, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the April 6 youth movement, declared a hunger strike on Wednesday in protest of the conditions of their detention. Their winter clothes, they said through an intermediary, had been taken away, with no replacement, by guards who said the garments were the wrong color.
Everywhere in Egypt, the raucous, unpredictable space for political expression opened by the 2011 revolution appears to be shrinking. The government asserts that the clampdown on the Brotherhood and restrictions on protest are needed in order to restore the security needed to proceed with a “road map” for political transition
What seems obvious, though, is that the military’s primary concern is a “road map” that leads to a new political leadership in the nation that essentially just serves as the public face of a regime that is, in reality, controlled by the military and that the new political arrangement in Egypt protects the military’s preferential position in Egyptian government and society much as it did during the Nassar-Sadat-Mubarak Era. Of course, that isn’t what the massive crowds who flooded the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere both in 2011 and 2013 are looking for. Indeed, one of the main reasons that protests began erupting against Morsi’s rule earlier this year is the fact that he seemed far more concerned with solidiying the power of the Brotherhood than in making Egypt a more democratic nation. When the military stepped in back in July and removed him from power, the public rallied to their side, not because they looked forward to the prospect of returning to a replay of the era of military rule that ended in February 2011 but because they thought it would return the nation to the path that it appeared to be on when Mubarak stepped down. That places their desires at odds with those of the military, and raises the prospects for more protests and civil unrest in the future.
Daniel Larison sees a disaster in the making:
Thanks to the coup, Egypt is demonstrably less safe for Christians and less stable than it was, and it is in danger of becoming a rallying point for jihadist recruitment and a target for jihadist attacks. Criminalizing the Muslim Brotherhood may make it possible to dismantle or at least disrupt the organization to some degree, but that simply creates incentives for Islamists to support more radical and violent groups, and it will make it harder for the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to control their members. All of that suggests that there will be more terrorist attacks and increased brutality from the authorities, both of which will serve to ruin the country.
None of this is in anyone’s interest, of course, least of all either those of the Egyptian people or the United States. An Egypt in a state of political and social collapse would likely have an impact across the Arab world, and most specifically in the immediate neighborhood. However, it’s not clear what if anything the United States can do about this. I tend to agree with Larison that the answer is that there’s pretty much nothing we can do. For one thing, the military is going to act primarily in its own interest and, in the event of any civil unrest, it likely will be able to crackdown sufficiently to preserve its power. For another, our military aid to Egypt doesn’t seem to have the influence that it once did. This is in no small part due to the fact that nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up in the months since the coup as major providers of direct aid to the military themselves, and they seem to see the conflict with the Brotherhood and other groups as part of the larger battle between Sunni and Shia Islam. As long as they have access to that aid, the threat of the U.S. holding back aid as a punishment likely doesn’t have the same impact that it once did.
The above comments aren’t meant to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Morsi created most of the problems that led to his removal from office with the actions in took during his one year in office. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see that a military coup that is clearly leading to the recreation of a state of affairs under which the Egyptian people were repressed for some 60 years is any better, especially if the predictions are right and the Arab world’s most populous nation turns into a recruiting ground for jihadists that bring their ideology into the already unstable areas around it. Of more concern, of course, is exactly what the military might be willing to do if the Egyptian people decided to try to return to the streets in the future in protest against the same military junta that they thought they had deposed in February 2011. The prospect for real bloodshed at that point would be quite high, and the future of Egypt would become even worse. That would be a disaster for all parties concerned.