Egypt Growing More Ominous by the Day

by Wayne White

Taking in the sweep of the jarring events in Egypt over the past month more broadly, it seems all concerned should brace themselves for an ongoing crisis. Regardless of whether many in the Muslim Brotherhood eventually resign themselves to make the best of adversity, others probably will not; it is, after all, a movement comprised of many earnest true believers — and some extremists. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military can be expected to remain steadfast in its decision to be rid of President Mohamed Morsi, possibly the result of even deeper differences with him than were known at the time of his removal. This sets up a scenario in which ending unrest without greater repression appears unlikely.

Quite a few inside and outside Egypt hope that as the process of transition to new elections and an amended constitution plays out over time, the Brotherhood eventually will bow to what appears to be the inevitable, wearying of its most likely futile defiance and pragmatically accepting the need to deal itself back into the Egyptian political process. Yet, as it becomes clearer that demonstrations almost certainly will not produce President Morsi’s return, militants within the Brotherhood could very well move in more dangerous directions.

The spike in attacks against the police and military in the Egyptian Sinai in reaction to Morsi’s fall reveals the sort of anger among Islamic militants that so far largely has been absent within Egypt proper — restrained in large part by the Brotherhood’s own leaders. In fact, the lack of a robust military reaction to the latest wave of Sinai attacks (other than placing tough new restrictions on travel between Sinai and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip) suggests General Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi and other senior military officers fear a more widespread outbreak of Brotherhood violence, and have kept the bulk of their security assets in Egypt’s heavily populated Nile core. Meanwhile, they may be willing to tolerate — at least for now — scattered extremist assaults in the sparsely populated Sinai.

The main obstacle to stability amidst transition has been violence that repeatedly has broken out associated with mainly peaceful Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. Many deaths since the killing of dozens of Brotherhood demonstrators in early July by the army at the Republican Guard compound have been blamed on either anti-Morsi elements or perhaps the security forces harrying Brotherhood protesters. During the night of July 22-23, nearly a dozen more were killed at several demonstrations that some credible witnesses claim originated from perpetrators outside the demonstrations.

If it is true that various parties, perhaps even the authorities, are acting as agents provocateur on the fringes of such demonstrations, eventually such actions could generate ugly confrontations with Brotherhood cadres hitherto willing to remain non-violent. Also, if these attacks arouse an especially strong reaction from Brotherhood zealots, suppressing such violence would require much tougher repression — placing the Egyptian military in greater danger of international condemnation as little more than an ongoing military coup. Yesterday, Washington delayed a delivery of F-16 fighter jets, quite possibly to signal its dismay over reports of military heavy-handedness.

And then there was yesterday’s bombing of a police station in Mansoura 50 miles north of Cairo. General al-Sisi quickly responded with a call for mass rallies tomorrow to hand him a “mandate” to “confront violence and potential terrorism.” The anti-Morsi youth group “Tamarud” (Rebellion) that played a key role in bringing Morsi down yesterday supported al-Sisi’s appeal by calling upon its supporters to take to the streets once again tomorrow.

Brotherhood leaders naturally warned of an “apparent plan by security and intelligence agencies” to carry out such attacks in order to implicate the Brotherhood. Today, Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie called al-Sisi a “traitor” and further inflamed matters by describing Morsi’s overthrow as worse than destroying Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba. Those responsible for the Mansoura attack remain unknown, but even if Brotherhood elements were responsible, such a violent response at some point had been rendered all but inevitable by the Brotherhood’s mounting losses to violence since the military’s July 3 takeover.

Information from the military and security officials from mid-July alleges that substantial differences between al-Sisi and Morsi increasingly caused the military brass to question Morsi’s intentions. Morsi supposedly blocked the military from taking stronger security measures in Sinai and declined to get tougher with Hamas in reaction to a serious Hamas provocation.

Finally, in response to al-Sisi’s 48-hour ultimatum on July 1 demanding that Morsi work with his opponents toward stability, Morsi reportedly attempted to replace al-Sisi with another general (who instead warned al-Sisi). If these allegations are true, as long as the military remains the arbiter of Egyptian domestic affairs, there is no question it would allow Morsi to return or another Brotherhood figure to become as dominant a figure in Egyptian politics.

As with Morsi’s tenure in office, the result of continuing unrest probably would be the prolongation of Egypt’s economic woes. Wealthy Arab Gulf allies might well be willing to prop up the transitional order with still more financial largesse. Still, with the economy’s enormous structural problems and corruption unaddressed and tourism unlikely to rebound, ordinary Egyptians in the most need could very likely see little difference in their lives.

Such a situation of heightened repression and continued economic stagnation could evolve into a situation akin to what Morsi’s government faced: rising public anger and alienation. It would be ironic if that were to happen. Just as an overconfident Morsi set the stage for his own fall by his determination — even seizing extra-legal powers at one key point — to ram through the Brotherhood’s agenda while shunning as much as half the electorate, the military also could become isolated by going too far in its zeal to suppress the Brotherhood. This Friday could bring the first glimpse of just how far Egypt’s military leaders are willing to go in that direction.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad 

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. This Friday is a brazenly choreographed show of force, and an incredibly clumsy one at that. It’s ironic, given that al-Sisi has the country otherwise in thrall, and his feints have been deft til now. To mobilize the splinter groups who’re salivating for blood, and then to use that as cover is shameful. The litmus test of the tomorrow’s legitimacy will be whether the Ultras join in. I suspect, and hope, they won’t.

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