No one knows exactly what is going to happen in Egypt, although the prognostications are not good. With so many members of the Muslim Brotherhood killed by the army and the police, and their leadership in custody, there can be very little optimism that they would be prepared for any kind of political compromise. In any case, as a religious movement they are convinced of the rightness of their cause and believe that they have the monopoly on morality in this situation. If, as the army is threatening to do, it bans the Brotherhood, it would then most likely become an underground movement with all the dangers inherent in that development.
Under such circumstances various things might happen, one of which is that a section of the Brotherhood, at least, will become radicalized and take up arms in defiance of the movement’s stance since the 1970s when it eschewed violence. In its earlier incarnation, of course, it was associated with killings, attempted assassinations and arson. The evolution of any kind of guerilla movement which in this day and age could easily be penetrated by radical jihadists, or else instability where there was blood-letting between those with a secular or liberal vision of the state and members of the Brotherhood, would be a major impediment to the restoration of democracy, and would leave the military in effective, even if not nominal, charge for an extended period.
Now while for the moment, according to all the reports, there is a substantial segment of Egyptian urban society which is supporting the military and its leader, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, any prolonged occupation by the army of the political space will almost certainly cause an attenuation of support, and the secular forces will begin to feel that this is no better than when Hosni Mubarak was in power ‒ and probably worse if there is communal violence.
It hardly bears observing that the army has shown no grasp of the political complexities of Egypt, and no capacity to understand the potential consequences of their actions. Furthermore, while they dislike the Brotherhood and what they represent, given the numbers supporting the latter they are in no position to eliminate them from the Egyptian political equation. As said above, driving the movement underground – if that does happen ‒ will fast-forward the country into a phase which might conceivably have parallels with Algeria and its army’s long confrontation with radical Islamists.
Of course in the first instance, the military should never have deposed former president Morsi. The fact that they had hundreds of thousands on the street calling for Mr Morsi to go, did not mean that the Brotherhood would accept his removal – and of course it did not. The army could have used its very great leverage at least to try and corner Mr Morsi into compromises, some of which he possibly seemed prepared to make at the last minute when he thought he was about to be removed. It would have been better to push him into compromises and let him see out the remaining three years of his term, since disillusioned voters might well have denied his party a win at the next election. But then soldiers are by instinct not democrats.
For its part the Brotherhood’s political party came into office in the naïve belief that a religious credo and a long history of excellent charity work would see it through. It had no economic programme, no acknowledgement that Egypt was something of a plural society, and no idea of government. The demonstrations on the street prior to the President’s ouster were partly an expression of frustration at the disastrous economic situation, which Mosi appeared to have no idea of how to alleviate, and partly a reaction against a constitution reflecting distinct Islamic elements which the protestors thought had been imposed on them.
Now it may be that even if the military had not embarked on the series of disastrous political blunders that brought Egypt to this point, the country would have reached there in any case by a longer route, but at least perhaps the military would not have had so much blood on its hands. Within the Brotherhood’s scheme of things, blood makes Islamic martyrs and calls for further sacrifice, although it is true that it has been reported that the numbers of the movement’s supporters on the streets has diminished since the killings. Whether that will be sufficient to restore some kind of uneasy calm, however, or whether the period following today’s prayers will see a return to the bloodshed, remains to be seen.
At the bottom of the great Egyptian political divide is the fact that although spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood prior to elections said the movement was committed to democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and political pluralism, the Western-style freedoms which inspire the various liberal or secularist elements in the political spectrum, are incompatible with the Brotherhood’s own beliefs. One of their two main principles is the introduction of the Sharia as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and the society.” While there are variations from one Muslim country to another, nevertheless it is fair to say that the Sharia in a general sense is not in consonance with a liberal-democratic political framework. In the end, therefore, one could not have expected the political party associated with the Brotherhood not to have attempted to introduce the Sharia eventually.
When Mr Morsi came into office backed by his party and the related movement, he clearly thought he had been given a mandate to make Egypt an Islamic state. While the military has inherited the secularist tradition of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his successors, it inevitably also represents an authoritarian tradition, and the officer class is not disposed to relinquish its position of ultimate power, or, for that matter, its huge vested economic interests. It is not the kind of background from which negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise usually emerge. However, if the army does not grasp that returning Egypt to some kind of civilian democratic road in the not-too-distant future is essential, and cast around for the admittedly very limited avenues to achieve that, then the true Arab Spring may be a long time in coming.