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Within the western press accounts of recent developments in Egypt have almost invariably been framed by a simplistic narrative that has managed to incorporate the full gamut of orientalist tropes about the Middle East. A power hungry military regime manipulating the naiveté of the ‘Arab street’ so as to secure their unquestioning loyalty while crushing any opposition through ruthless displays of force. Pitted against the army are the loyalists of the deposed president, Muhammad Morsi, whose fanatical religious devotion makes them unwilling to accept any compromise, short of Morsi’s return to office, and perfectly willing to put themselves in harms way until that aim is realized. Further on the horizon looms the specter of violent religious fanaticism, if the inchoate anger of the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file remains unassuaged.
Conscientious observers in Egypt find themselves walking a tight-rope in trying to make sense of recent events, and plotting a path forward. Twice in the past few weeks the Egyptian army and police indiscriminately opened fire on large crowds of demonstrators. While it is not definitively known what precipitated these actions, it is impossible that the crowds represented a threat justifying this level of violence, and these criminal acts deserve condemnation. However, framing this condemnation within such a simplistic narrative obscures the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a highly disciplined and centralized organization, while obviating the need to ask why this organization continues to pursue needlessly confrontational tactics that serve no other purpose than encouraging further violence.
Since Muhammad Morsi’s removal from office on July 3rd, Morsi supporters have attempted to confront anti-Morsi demonstrators on numerous occasions, pursued the unpopular tactic of blocking Egypt’s main thoroughfares and thrown stones, Molotov cocktails and fired live ammunition at the Egyptian army. The leadership itself has continued to actively incite violence through calls to martyrdom and through public accusations that Morsi’s opponents are enemies of Islam and apostates. The fact that these tactics further alienate the organization from the mainstream of Egyptian society and expose its own rank-and-file to injury and death has only increased suspicions that the Brotherhood is consciously seeking to provoke violence for its own benefit. The leadership’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of its own members was succinctly expressed in a recent interview with Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the organization. According to al-Haddad Brotherhood members “are not like the people in Tahrir. When the people in Rabaa [where the Muslim Brotherhood has been protesting] heard the shotguns, they ran to it, not away from it.”
Since the July 3rd coup representatives of the Brotherhood have made full use of the orientalist tropes of inchoate Muslim rage in order to propel the narrative that Egypt will descend into chaos unless the fanatical impulses of its members are assuaged. In an audio recording of the final conversation between Morsi and the head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Sissi, Morsi warns that if he is deposed “there will be a war [in the streets] and we’ll see who will win.”
During its brief tenure in office the Brotherhood repeatedly showed itself willing to use street violence as a political instrument. When opponents of Morsi’s proposed constitution staged a non-violent sit-in in front of Cairo’s presidential palace last December they were forcibly dispersed by Brotherhood supporters. After the first round of voting for Egypt’s constitutional referendum, Morsi’s main salafist allies stormed the headquarters of Egypt’s Wafd Party which had been vocal in opposing the constitution. As the strength of Tamrrud Movement became apparent in the weeks leading up to June 30th, Morsi’s supporters were publicly exhorted to “pulverize the demonstrators” calling for early presidential elections and the president’s resignation. Since July 3rd this propensity for violence has continued to manifest itself, as suspected “infiltrators” found in Brotherhood demonstrations have been subjected to torture, maiming and even murder.
The intransigence of the Brotherhood’s leadership in refusing to accept any compromise, coupled with its continued willingness to use violence appears to have alienated at least some of its membership. A group of youth activists within the Muslim Brotherhood has announced their defection, not from the organization itself, but from its current leadership, which it denounces for needlessly exposing its rank-and-file to danger and depriving them of “the opportunity to express [them]selves through peaceful means.”
This is not to justify the actions of the Egyptian army and state security forces. However, observers inside and outside of Egypt need to address both sides of the problem if an actual solution is to be found. Public pressure needs to be put on the army and the Brotherhood leadership affirming the right of non-violent protestors to make their voices heard. A worrying development amongst some of Morsi’s opponents is the blanket castigation of Brotherhood members as “terrorists” and the Egyptian army’s request for public support in pursuing a “war against terrorism.”
Fortunately, many of Morsi’s most ardent opponents within the revolutionary camp denounced a return to the same authoritarian methods that the Egyptian revolution has steadfastly opposed since January of 2011, even if used against their adversaries. The Tamarrud Movement, which assiduously denounced violence while uniting Egyptian society through a petition gathering campaign and the largest demonstrations in Egypt’s history has spoken in support of the Brotherhood’s right to use these same methods to make their voices heard. To this end al-Tamarrud has called for the deputization of third parties to search both pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators for weapons while seeking to circumvent both the army and the Brotherhood’s leadership by calling for dialogue with the youth activists in support of Morsi. If the Egyptian Revolution is to realize the ideals for which it has continued to struggle, these initiatives need to be supported by both sides of the conflict, and onlookers most go beyond the simplistic narratives within which the conflict has been framed.
Martin Margolis is a PhD student, currently in Cairo researching his dissertation on Egyptian history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org