The seven months since July’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt have been among the most violent and divisive in recent times, analysts say, as much of society polarizes along pro-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and pro-army lines.
Reconciliation seems a distant prospect and more remote now, some argue, than in the immediate aftermath of the army takeover.
“The reconciliation opportunity, which existed after Morsi’s overthrow, has disappeared,” said Issandr el Amrani, an International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst on Egypt. “Now that the officials and media call the Brotherhood a `terrorist organization’ and hold them responsible for all the attacks, [the security forces] have to stick to this point of view.”
On the MB side, even at ground level many Morsi supporters say they feel too persecuted to talk with their opponents. “I used to talk with the people who I know disagreed with me. Now they think the repression we’ve fallen victim to is deserved. I have nothing to say to such people,” said Aya*, an 18-year-old pro-MB demonstrator.
It is now a widespread popular belief, held and promoted by those in the new government, that MB supporters support violence and chaos. There have been a series of sometimes deadly neighbourhood clashes when there are anti-coup/pro-MB demonstrations.
Almost immediately after the army takeover, the newly formed government established a Ministry of Transitional Justice and Reconciliation. But even officials within the ministry say reconciliation is a long way off.
For Mahmoud Fawzy, legal adviser to the minister, “violence should stop in order to start any reconciliation process. By violence I mean disturbance in the streets, universities, etc.”
Several of those seen as in favour of more reconciliation efforts have already resigned from the transitional government. Mohamed El Baradei left right after the violent dispersal of the pro-MB Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Cairo. More recently, other moderate voices such as Vice-Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa el Din have resigned.
“Perhaps the authorities wouldn’t exclude reconciliation in a year or two, but on their own terms, with the Brotherhood accepting the legitimacy of the new regime. The priority these days is holding presidential elections and strengthening the new regime,” said the ICG’s el Amrani.
Officials in the government say January’s referendum on the proposed new constitution, which saw more than 98 percent vote in favour, shows they have popular support.
On the MB side, reconciliation also seems hard to imagine. “The anti-coup alliance stated many times that there are no negotiations with this murderous illegitimate military-appointed government,” Abdullah al-Haddad, a London-based MB spokesperson, told IRIN.
“The anti-coup movement wants to make Egypt an ungovernable country - exactly like the anti-Brotherhood had tried to do against Morsi,” said el Amrani.
The norm on pro- and anti-government sides has been one of demonizing the other, while violence continues to flare. Last December’s decree officially naming the MB a “terrorist organization” has closed the door to any immediate prospect of talks.
State violence and “terrorism”
According to Amnesty International 1,400 people have been killed in political violence since July 2013, when millions took to the streets calling for the MB president to leave.
Several thousand MB leaders and supporters are detained - and now people inclined both towards an anti-MB and anti-army perspective are getting arrested as well - while others are simply swept up in the wave of arrests.
“The new protest law makes it almost impossible to protest,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces do not use normal crowd-control techniques; they resort to live fire very quickly, which is a worrying pattern…
“Of course this is not new and specific to the current period: For example, in 2013 under Morsi, in Port-Said, it was the case as well. But it is much more intense. This is one of the worst periods Egypt has known.”
The government denies reports of excessive force by the security services and says journalists who mention it are trying to portray a false image of Egypt as descending into civil war. Anti-coup and pro-MB supporters have also been accused by government supporters of exaggerating casualty figures and accounts of violence for political ends, or to try and make parallels with Syria.
The authorities say that not only are the demonstrators not peaceful but the MB is directly responsible for recent “terrorist” attacks, even if several are actually claimed by various Sinai-based jihadi groups such as Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (“Supporters of Jerusalem” in Arabic).
Bomb scares and “terrorist” attacks such as suicide bombings and drive-by shootings, targeting mainly security forces, have become a trend in the past six months, with Christians, and more recently tourists, among the targets.
The MB officially denies any implication in this violence. Al-Haddad said “the Muslim Brotherhood condemns any sort of violence against the Egyptian people. We believe that Egyptians who were protesting for the past seven months won't be dragged into violence.”
Aya says they are peaceful: “It is a matter of principle. Maybe there are sometimes armed people among us, but I do believe they are thugs sent by the police or informants.”
In Alf Maskan on the outskirts of Cairo, where Aya lives, and the neighbouring Matareya, the weekly Friday “anti-coup” demonstrations continue. These two areas saw the most violent clashes on 25 January, the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising, when anti-army demonstrators took to the streets leaving at least sixty dead.
For el Amrani, “the Brotherhood accuses the West of abandoning them [saying] they always shunned violence and took part in the democratic process. However, there is a potential for the youth to become radicalized and go against Brotherhood orders.” At least on Facebook, some pro-Islamist groups are calling for retribution against the security forces and the regime.
“It is also unclear whether the Brotherhood in their time used their own thugs. The Brotherhood/anti-coup speech is one of resistance against an illegitimate regime. It could be easily interpreted as an incitement to violence,” he said.
Apart from the MB and a tiny faction which is vocally anti-army and anti-Brotherhood, few people are calling for public accountability for the current violence.
A widespread campaign in the pro-army media paints pro-Morsi protesters as enemies and normal supporters as traitors.
“[M]ost Egyptians give support to the state in its fight against terrorism and turn a blind eye to excesses committed by the security apparatus,” said Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany in the New York Times.
Last December the government set up an investigation committee, similar to the ones created in previous years, to look at the acts of violence of the 2011 uprising and of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regime which ran Egypt between presidents Mubarak and Morsi.
According to Omar Marwan, the general secretary of the committee, “the judges working on these cases are not expected to follow any political narrative. They have to find eyewitnesses and video evidence and talk to all the parties.” They are to investigate 10 cases, including the events in Sinai and protest-related violence since 30 June 2013.
Notably absent from the topics are the clashes between security forces and pro-Morsi demonstrators at Ramses Square in Cairo on 16 August 2013 or the ones in Cairo on 6 October. There is no guarantee that the findings of the committee, expected in about six months, will be made public. Moreover, they will be presented to the president only, and not to the prosecutor-general.
The next major political event on the horizon will be presidential elections, expected to take place in the next two months. “Some inside the regime could see the Brotherhood take part in the elections, as independents like under Mubarak, if they stopped opposing the legitimacy of the current regime,” said el Amrani. “But for the rank and file, it would already be very difficult to admit that Sisi [Defence Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the most powerful figure in the army-backed government] would stay, as he came to personify the repression. For them, there must at least be retribution for Rabaa.”
*Not a real name