Breaking the Cycle of Vendetta in Egypt

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Breaking the Cycle of Vendetta in Egypt

As people watch the news on Egypt at present, it is hard to see anything more than a whirlwind, where cycles of change are spinning out of control, and without any real leadership to put a wrench in the works. Egypt needs leadership, more than ever: and it is a pity that virtually no one seems to be up to the task. If that continues, then all Egyptians are likely to pay the price – and no one will really remember who started what first. What is happening now is a vendetta – one that few can remember the beginnings of – but we all know where it ends. And we all know what it takes to stop it.

At present, one of the most pressing concerns for the Egyptian anti-Mursi camp is the conversion of the Muslim Brotherhood into a terrorist organisation. It is a concern that certainly has some basis – the level and type of rhetoric coming out of the pro-Mursi camp, including from some Brotherhood spokespeople and leaders in public is undeniably worrying. Calling for would-be martyrs to stand ready, an ‘intifada’, and claiming that deadly violence in the Sinai would end if Mursi were re-appointed, is hardly non-violent in intent or substance. Moreover, from the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam during the popular protests of June 30 onwards, it is clear that the Brotherhood does have access to fairly impressive weaponry and firearms.

[The question of whether or not it is surprising they had access to them is besides the point for this particular article – although the argument can easily be made that they had good reason to take extra precautions considering the clear, and predictable, refusal of the police force to carry out their functions that night. It is, nevertheless, a lot harder to argue they should have had that type of weaponry, or even if the headquarters was worth the MB protecting.]

Turning to terrorism?

Around the country, pro-Mursi forces (if not definitively MB forces, which is not quite clear at the moment) have committed acts of deadly violence – within Cairene residential areas, Alexandria, as well as in different parts of the Sinai. These include attacks that resulted in the deaths of unarmed civilians, not party to the state or the pro-Mursi camp. All of this remains a matter of concern – and leads the anti-Mursi camp to wonder: if the Muslim Brotherhood has not already turned into a terrorist organisation, how long before it actually does if its demands are not met?

Here, I’d like to consider, for the sake of argument, particularly as someone who has been harshly critical of the MB when it was the ‘party of power’, some aspects of what other ‘parties of power’ did, and are now doing, vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2011, people were bewildered as the MB decided to ‘go it alone’, and broke pledges it made to the Egyptian public, time and time again: whether with regards to running more parliamentary candidates than they said they would (almost double), and two presidential candidates after it said it would not run for the presidency at all. My appraisal at the time was simple: was this really unexpected? Many of the harshest critics of the MB had been silent when in the 2000s and the 1990s, the civil and political rights of the MB (when, certainly they could not have been described as a violent organisation in Egypt) were curtailed; was it unsurprising that it decided no-one could be trusted? Even knowing this, I gave harsh criticism, arguing that the MB had to recognise that Tahrir Square in the 18 days have given them a taste of what Egypt could be, and that the population, as well as many parts of the political elite, had given it a chance. A chance the MB eventually squandered.

As we look at the rhetoric aimed at the MB now, we see seeds of a discourse that will inevitably have repercussions. The accusation, for example, that the MB are ‘not Egyptian’ owing to its supra-national considerations is rather strange: for the same accusation could be just as easily be levied at Nasserites and ultra-socialists. The former group recognises Egypt as a part of the greater Arab world, and the latter as part of the global ‘working class’ – but similar accusations are not (yet) being made of them. The cycle of rhetoric begins: and soon, few will be able to recognise in public discourse who started what and when.

Another accusation is that the MB cannot be relied upon to think of themselves other than a persecuted minority, whether they are in or out of power – and indeed, that is true, but that in itself is a response (whether justifiable or not) to actual actions waged against them by the state. And then the question will be were such actions justified due to earlier actions of the MB, and so on, until, again, the truth becomes a political football to be hurled in selective parts at one’s enemies. The cycle continues – until someone decides to break that cycle.

There have been two points where that cycle was broken in the past three years – and interestingly, they both took place over the course of 18 days. The first was the January 25th uprising, which was a moment that cracked a hole in the fabric of the unending cycle of despair and hopelessness in Egypt till that point. That ‘moment’ lasted for 18 days – and the effects of it still remain in Egypt today. The MB were forgiven for their earlier transgressions, and vice versa, in that square – a moment that appears to have forgotten for most today, and which lasted a few weeks at best for a critical mass of people (as seen in the constitutional amendments referendum, where the MB opted to reject the revolutionary consensus for a ‘no’ vote). It provoked a second ‘moment’, which happened 18 months later, between the results of the first round of presidential elections, and when people went to vote in the second round. That second ‘moment’ was another chance to put a wrench in the cycle of political depravity in Egypt, when non-MB members chose to put their faith in a coalition that Mursi promised (a promise he reneged on) to uphold if he won. In both cases, the majority of people involved (although not all), squandered the chance to permanently break the cycle.

Yet, those moments were real – and by taking place, they show it is possible to have those moments. The easy choice in both was to stay out of it – to ignore the Square, or to boycott the vote altogether. The more difficult choice was to stand on principle, and make a choice to believe in a better future, against all odds. The breaking of the cycle of mutual distrust and common hate is difficult to achieve – but if Egypt has a chance to progress and make good on the promise of the January 25th revolution, that cycle must be broken. Another moment must be sought – and there is no time like the present to begin. Otherwise, at best, we will see minute and superficial improvements over a decrepit state that Hosni Mubarak delivered to Egypt’s rulers on February 11 – and at worse, we will see an intensification of hate and polarisation that will only worsen Egypt for all Egyptians. Egypt, and Egyptians, deserve much better than that. It is not that the revolution can continue: it’s that it must.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.

This article was published by Al Arabiya on July 14, 2013. Read it here.