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Pure Onsense

No one to cheer for in Egypt

Scott Zuke

(9/2013) My column last month concluded with an open question as to whether Egypt's interim government would work towards finding a way to democratically include the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers of deposed President Mohamed Morsi in its next attempt to establish a working government, or would violently repress the group and exclude it from political participation, following decades of precedent set by former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. In August, that question was answered with the blood of hundreds of Islamist protesters, spilled in a brutal crackdown as their rally sites were bulldozed, set ablaze, and fired upon with tear gas and live ammunition.

Over 600 civilians were killed in the initial assault on August 14, which drew comparisons to China's Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Hundreds more were killed in the following days as the Brotherhood vowed to continue street demonstrations. The interim government declared a month-long state of emergency and ordered a curfew--moves taken straight out of Mubarak's authoritarian playbook--and announced it was considering disbanding the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

In response to the crackdown, Islamists took out their anger on Egyptian police and government buildings, and set fire to dozens of churches belonging to Egypt's minority Christian population. Egypt's Interior Ministry then authorized the use of deadly force against protesters.

The following week, after prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested, the group found itself weakened and disorganized. By the end of the month, the crackdown appeared to be succeeding in its aim of bringing an end to the street protests, but the picture emerging from the rubble is one dishearteningly similar to that of Egypt before the Arab Spring. Images of former President Hosni Mubarak being released from jail and carried off by helicopter while Mohamed Morsi remained in custody further drove home the feeling that the old status quo was somehow being restored nearly three years after the Arab Spring was supposed to change the region indelibly.

An ancient Arab proverb says, "Better sixty years of tyranny than one day of anarchy." Despite Mubarak's removal from power, there's little evidence now that Egyptians' attitudes have changed. They have merely qualified that the tyranny shall never be by Islamists.

So strong is the anger towards the Brotherhood, in fact, that the military and police have started applying the label of "Islamist" even to decidedly non-Muslim persons it wishes to harass and suppress. According to Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef in a recent article for the New York Times, "What is different is that the police feel for the first time in two and a half years, for the first time since January 2011, that they have the upper hand, and they do not need to fear public accountability or questioning."

Meanwhile, the U.S. and the rest of the international community have been reduced to little more than spectators watching Egypt unravel. Lawmakers in the U.S. have shown some renewed interest in reevaluating the $1.3 billion of military assistance America sends to Egypt each year, but cutting the aid would have its own repercussions for the U.S., and would be a risky gambit since other Arab nations have started pouring money into Egypt to support the military.

Lobe Log, a foreign policy commentary site, has documented how the U.S.'s right wing has split on whether to support the coup, but has recently come out in support of Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and the Egyptian military. As Daniel Luban notes, while some of the support may have to do with considerations for U.S.'s strategic interests, there has also been a distinct religious element to their position, taking a strong stance against the Islamists because of their attacks on Egypt's Coptic Christians.

Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter a reasonable response to these and other apologists for the military: "I can understand that people despise the [Muslim Brotherhood], but that doesn't mean they have to justify every crazy thing happening." Frustrating as it may to those seeking the moral clarity of a good vs. evil scenario, there's no one left vying for power in Egypt who has clean hands, or even an acceptable vision for a future Egypt that is safe, prosperous, or inclusive. And there is simply no moral justification for the assault on pro-Morsi supporters on August 14, in which perhaps twice as many people were killed as in the recent alleged chemical weapon attack in Syria.

The day of the crackdown, an Egyptian ambassador speaking in Washington, D.C. insisted that the interim government is leaving the door open to Islamists who want to participate in a reformed democracy, so long as they turn away from violence and terrorism. He didn't miss a beat when a reporter informed him that, while he was speaking, Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei had resigned from office in protest of the mass act of violence committed by the interim government. In a statement later that day, acting President Adly Mansour praised the police for their restraint in emptying the squares of protesters. Meanwhile, photos showed smoke billowing over a smoldering Cairo.

As much uncertainty as there is regarding Egypt's future, there are two points worth remembering. First, talk is cheap. Whatever rhetoric comes from the military or the Muslim Brotherhood, the struggle playing out now has nothing to do with democracy, and neither side has shown any concern for democratic inclusiveness in its actions. And second, while pundits argue that only one side can be victorious in this struggle, and therefore advocate picking one side over the other based on U.S. interests, when it comes down to it, this is something worse than a zero-sum game for Egypt, the United States, and the broader Middle East. The highly visible failure of a democratic movement in the region's most influential nation could ripple outwards, undermining democratic momentum in the other Arab Spring countries and elsewhere.

Read other article by Scott Zuke