Things in Egypt are moving quite quickly. It has gotten to the point where if one stops keeping up to date for an hour, one finds that a fundamental shift has just taken place – again. With that in mind, I am keenly aware that in the space of time it takes for me to write this article, it is entirely likely that ElBaradei returns to Egypt to become the new minister of interior to engage in security reform, Al-Sisi retires, and Russian becomes a mandatory second language in schools. (OK, some of that is facetious, but some of it is not.) As such, a very quick read of this is recommended – the choices that three major forces in Egypt now have: the Muslim Brotherhood, the state, and then those who are not particularly pleased about either of them.
The aftermath of the state’s move against Morsi on 3 July could have gone a lot better than it did, strategically speaking. It would have been very plausible to conceive of an outcome that would have caused Morsi to have left power, for the defence minister to have been the most popular man in Egypt for perhaps 90% of the population (including much of the Brotherhood), and to have been the general to prove to the international community that a military coup can actually bring about democracy, even if terribly unlikely. Instead, the outcome is likely to have turned significant parts of the pro-Morsi camp into insurgents (resulting in violence for a long time to come), put Egypt on the road to being a pariah state internationally, and hundreds upon hundreds of Egyptians have been killed – mostly (but not all) by security services whose job it is to protect them.
The state has a choice. To some extent, the cooperation of the Brotherhood is irrelevant: it is not the Brotherhood that is responsible for governance and security in Egypt. The responsibility and duty of the state in this regard far outweighs the Brotherhood. With regards to violence, the state must be absolutely relentless in preventing violence. That means protecting the churches and Christian communities around the country that have been targeted – so far, the Coptic Church has complained about the state’s dereliction of duty in this regard. This means also protecting the marches that are underway, if the Brotherhood fails to stop them – and if need be, protect them from themselves. Confirmed reports indicate that there were a small number (not even one percent) of people on the marches with weapons – such people must be apprehended with minimum force use to prevent any harm to the rest of the protesters. The protesters’ unpopular political aims notwithstanding, proximity to people with guns can never be deemed to be justification for taking their lives. This is not a war between states where discussions around ‘collateral damage’ come into play – this is Egypt, and these are Egyptians.
Likewise, when a protest is threatened by a mob, as was the case outside the Fatah Mosque on Saturday, it is the responsibility of the state to protect the protest. Some will argue that this is what it did, as security forces tried to arrange safe passage. Perhaps they did – but not nearly with enough effort. The army and the security services should have cordoned off the area around the mosque, and insisted that every single individual be confined to beyond the perimeter. At that point, they should have brought in buses, flanked by army and security personnel, to evacuate the protesters. That would have ended the standoff within an hour, and protected life with minimum effort – if emergency law applies to the protesters, then it surely applies to those who would bear them harm.
An independent investigation, with full powers of accountability, ought to be instituted immediately vis-à-vis every loss of life from 3 July until today – and all action taken against those within the state who are found responsible. On the political track, the state should empower any dialogue initiative that can be found, and cease taking any legal action against any individual in the pro-Morsi camp that is not based on genuine evidence of actual violence. All of that can wait – at this point, the only reason the state should be apprehending anyone involved in political life (except for violent offences) is to invite them to talk at the Azhar (one of the few places left for any discussion), rather than put them behind bars.
The Muslim Brotherhood also has a few options in front of it. They’re not good options – in fact, they’re all pretty awful options. Yet, some options are worse than others. The first option is for them to do nothing different: to continue to protest, and escalate if possible. The second choice is to, well, not.
The first choice is the preferred choice for many in the Brotherhood and its larger circle of pro-Morsi allies. The smartest among them realise that if they do continue with protests, they ought to not only disavow violence completely (as opposed to the incitement many have been doing), but they ought to take extremely harsh measures to ensure not a single weapon can be found on their marches. Moreover, they ought to renounce any violence against the police or the military around the country, and use any media channel they can (Al-Jazeera for example) to do so. The problem is, while these are the smartest bunch in the Brotherhood, they underestimate how difficult it is to actually enforce this. After the last few weeks, including the massacre of Rabaa, it is clear that there will be supporters of the Morsi camp that will take weapons – and they may not listen to anyone.
Beyond that, even if the Brotherhood is able to pull off peaceful protests without a single weapon or incitement, it’s a choice that comes with a huge price. The Brotherhood is convinced that the majority of the population are behind it – and thus, they just need to hold their ground. The population will eventually join it on protests, and will overthrow the interim government as a result. Nice idea – but despite the Brotherhood desperately wanting to believe that the majority are behind them, numerous polls over the past year show very clearly results to the contrary [http://tahrirtrends.tahrirsquared.com/]. The population is not behind them – and the media representation that is currently out there in full force dehumanising them will ensure that stays for the duration. If there is not a single weapon among 20,000 people, and then one person is there with a pistol, it will serve as sufficient cause (in the public’s eyes) to treat it as an armed, terrorist supporting battalion. We have already seen how that goes – even the most horrendous use of excess brute force has been met by the general public with a shrug or, worse, justification.
There is another option for the Brotherhood, but it is unlikely it will take it. In every confrontation where the balance of power is overwhelmingly against you, you have a choice: to resist and be utterly defeated, or to surrender, and try to build something better another day. The Brotherhood is in that position now, whether it likes it or not – and the stakes for their utter and complete defeat will not simply take them down. It will also have repercussions for Egypt as a whole. As a group that has been so convinced of the idea that its aims are integral to Egypt’s progress, it needs to consider how surrender can be negotiated – preferably out in the open, with as much press as possible, and appealing to the offices of Al-Azhar. Out of all the state’s institutions, Al-Azhar is probably the most willing to give the Brotherhood a forum, if nothing else. Or the Brotherhood can continue this path – bearing the consequences for it as the security establishment goes forward with overwhelming public cover, if little morality.
The Brotherhood lost on 30 June – and has failed to manoeuvre itself out of further failure and losses since then. If the signs are to be relied upon, their opponents are moving to not only displace the Brotherhood from the public arena, but even to displace this leadership from the Brotherhood itself. It is entirely possible that a ‘new Brotherhood’ will ‘arise’, and become a non-governmental organisation, with little or nothing in common with the ‘old’ Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood does not take some strategic steps soon, it may find itself having its own organisational memory completely rewritten within Egypt, beyond being utterly defeated and displaced.
Finally, there are words of advice I would give to those who identify themselves as being opposed to both the continuation of the political visions currently followed by the state and the Muslim Brotherhood. You are in a minority – and you are a threatened minority. Both sides will target you for character assassination, and for being ‘secretly’ on the other side. It has already begun. On a famous talk-show on national television, one host recently attacked the ‘third way people’ for essentially being treasonous – if not in so many words. You are a threat, because you reject these binaries that the two sides are presenting, and you want something better for Egypt. You made this choice many moons ago. Today, it is a very hard position to maintain in the face of such opposition from both sides.
Take strength in that – because in times of hardship like these, you learn where your place actually is – and who will always stand firm on principles for all. There is a secret blessing in that – take comfort in it. Esbat makanak– stand your ground. It is not that this is the hardest time to do it – it is that this is the most important time to do it.