Law & Order Under Egypt's 'Democratic Coup'?

Co-written by John O. Voll, Georgetown University

The killing of 51 unarmed supporters of the MB at prayer by the military on July 7 raises serious questions about the future of Egypt's "coup for democracy." The rising number of casualties in fighting in Cairo reveals the dangerous contradictions of the military take-over of government in Egypt. Although military leaders claim to be working to create an inclusive national government, their responses to popular demonstrations of supporters of President Morsi, contradict that position. The military argued that large popular demonstrations somehow reflect the will of the Egyptian people -- when the demonstrations called for the resignation of President Morsi. However, large numbers of people demonstrating in favor of President Morsi receive very different treatment from the Egyptian armed forces and are not recognized as representing an important voice in Egyptian society.

This contradiction can be seen in the actions of the armed forces in dealing with large popular demonstrations. During the days of the large anti-Morsi demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, solders were observers but military and security forces seldom intervened to bring order. This lack of action was even visible when the anti-Morsi forces became a violent mob that destroyed the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, last week, when pro-Morsi forces engaged in non-violent sit-in demonstrations, they were quickly met by strong military action. In the early pro-Morsi demonstrations on Friday, July 5, protesters marched to the officers' club of the Republican Guard after performing Friday prayers in the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. The officer in command of the soldiers ordered the demonstrators to stay out of the street in front of the buildings, but the large crowd pushed some people into the street. BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen was present and reported that "within a minute I saw barrels of guns lowered" and soldiers fired into the crowd with live ammunition. Bowen said that the soldiers "used live rounds before they used tear gas." On Monday morning the military attacked demonstrators while finishing morning prayer, killing a reported 51 people and injuring hundreds in what observers called a massacre.

Military leaders report that they are urging supporters of President Morsi to join with others in an effort to create a national government. However, it is difficult to imagine why the Muslim Brotherhood would have any reason to trust the military in any negotiations. It is even more difficult to see who are the people that the military think would be representative of the supporters of President Morsi, since many of the leaders of his party, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood are in detention or jail.

This situation highlights a second dangerous contradiction in the military take-over of the Egyptian Government. Much of the popular anti-Morsi activism was motivated by opposition to an Islamist political program. However, the overthrow of President Morsi has opened the way for the ultra-Islamist Salafist Al Nour Party, in the words of a New York Times headline writer, to move "From Amateur Status to a Starring Role After Morsi's Ouster." (New York Times, 8 July 2013, A1) All who have in the past called for a more compromising and accommodating Islamism and who supported the anti-Morsi movement, have now reaped the harvest of their unwillingness to recognize the historic tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood as willing to operate "within the system." At the moment, the anti-Morsi forces have created the context in which the emerging major voice for Islamist sympathies is the most fundamentalist part of the ideological spectrum.

This situation is a blow to those who hope for a peaceful transition from military authoritarianism to an open democracy in Egypt. Before the post-Mubarak elections and the Tahrir demonstrations, Abullahi An-Na'im argued that:

"Advocates of secularism for Islamic societies are clearly motivated by objections to the agenda of Islamic fundamentalists... Ironically, however, their advocacy of secularism may in fact strengthen what they are opposing. If presented with European secularism as the only alternative to the so-called Islamic state and application of Shari'a, Islamic societies will clearly prefer the latter, however serious its conceptual faults and practical difficulties." ("Political Islam in National Politics and International Relations," The Desecularization of the World, ed. Peter Berger, 1999, p. 119)

It is wishful thinking on the part of the old Mubarak regime holdovers and the disorganized secular elite in Egypt to think that their counter-revolution will change the general popular Egyptian identification with Islam. The goal should not be to oust those Islamists who are working within the system, it should be to find bridges of accommodation in which the secularists and those identified with the old military regime people will make as many compromises as they demanded from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless this is done, the risk is the creation of a cycle, more military repression and bloodshed and a return to military backed authoritarian rule in Egypt.