A Curfew Falls on an Egypt Divided
The last time there was a curfew in Cairo was during the 18-day uprising in 2011. That began on Jan. 25 and ended on Feb. 11 with the military-forced resignation of then-president Hosni Mubarak. For most Egyptians, those 18 days represented a revolution that was fought and won; for a minority, those 18 days signalled the beginning of a revolution. On Wednesday, the days of curfew returned to Cairo, but they shan’t be accompanied by a revolution. It remains to be seen what is going to happen to the last one – or if it even continues.
There are a few facts about Aug. 14 that are indisputable. The Egyptian state decided that the sit-ins needed to be broken up; the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies insisted they did not need to be. The interim government decided that the sit-ins would be dispersed by force, and by the evening, they were gone. At a great cost – the human cost of loss of life.
There’s not going to be much more than this that all sides in Egypt will agree on – and indeed, that is part of the disaster of Aug. 14. For weeks, even within the interim government itself, there have been differences over whether or not the sit-ins ought to be dispersed by force, precisely because it was likely that the result would be loss of life. On Wednesday it became clear that the hawks won out over the doves – and during the day, one of the most famous doves, interim vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned over the decision to forcefully disperse the sit-ins. Public disapproval came from the head of the Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who insisted that dialogue, rather than violence, was the answer. In the rest of society, human- and civil-rights organizations expressed severe concerns over the course of the day, and a smattering of journalists from media such as Mada Masr were clear in their attempt to show all sides of the day’s events.
Beyond these examples, the rest of Egypt seems to be entirely united on one thing – that their side is completely right, and the other side is absolutely wrong. The polarized narratives stretch incredibly into all areas of discussion – the state insists that the attempt to close the sit-ins involved no order to use deadly force, and its supporters fully endorse that point of view. Their death toll at the end of the day, while significant, is in the dozens. The Muslim Brotherhood and its backers, on the other hand, make note of incredibly large amounts of weaponry, and thousands dead, with many more injured. Confirming any of these details is not going to happen in the next few days, because no one will believe the other side’s narrative. The media war is ongoing and will intensify, as it serves to legitimize political decisions and strategies employed by the state as well as the pro-Morsi camp.
Gradually, however, details will begin to emerge, as they emerged under Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi’s tenure as leader of the military that ruled Egypt from 2011 to 2012, as well as former president Mohammed Morsi’s rule for the past year. There is a maverick, marginal middle in Egypt, which accounts for most of the human- and civil-rights organizations in the country. Those groups did not support the Muslim Brotherhood’s abuses while it was in power, and they are not about to do so now, when far more loss of life seems evident. They are the ones that will condemn the excessive use of force against the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters by the state; they are the ones that will attack the incitement of violence by Morsi supporters; they are the ones who will have drawn attention to the attacks on Christian places of worship around the country in retaliatory strikes.
They will piece together, through eyewitness reports, cross-referencing and engaging with the smattering of Egyptian and foreign journalists, what has happened in the last 24 hours – and they will likely earn the vitriol of both the state and the pro-Morsi camp for questioning the predominant narratives. Yet, it is that maverick middle that all political groups eventually rely upon when faced with the behemoth of the state – alternating depending on whether or not those political groups are in power. That maverick middle, unlike the main political forces, have had a constant demand that now seems further away than ever: the reform and restructuring of the interior ministry.
One wonders, as a curfew falls over Egypt, and emergency law returns: What is the future of Egypt’s revolutionary process, and its transition to a more pluralistic, stable and progressive place? The Egyptian state has tremendous support from the wider population; no one ought to doubt that. Far more support than has the Muslim Brotherhood, which may be many things, but it doesn’t govern the country.
In the past three years, it has probably never been harder for the supporters of the Jan. 25 revolution to see past the smoke, the gas, the blood and the tears – but all of those have been constant features since that day in 2011. The state at the moment is not fighting for a revolution, and neither is the Muslim Brotherhood. But Egypt’s revolution is not over. Today, it is harder to fight for, indeed, and allies are few. Yet, with the utter failure of political leadership in Egypt, from all political forces in and out of the state, that revolution, with the maverick middle that struggles for it, remains the only vision that can not only heal Egypt’s wounds, but make it stronger.
This article was published in The Globe and Mail on August 15, 2013. Read it here.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, is an ISPU Fellow, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west.