Despite dozens of deaths, Muslim Brotherhood finds little sympathy at home or abroad

July 29, 2013

A member of the medical staff of a field hospital sits in front of a poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi after tending to the bodies of pro-Morsi supporters reportedly killed in fighting between pro-Morsi demonstrators and Egyptian security forces. (Ed Giles/Getty Images)

State violence against protesters doesn't tend to cause much of an outcry in Egypt, outside of the groups affected and some activists. But, in early October 2011, an event popularly described as the "Maspero massacre" was bad enough to send at least some shockwaves.

Demonstrators, mostly Coptic Christians, had gathered outside the Maspero state media office in Cairo to protest the recent destruction of a church. The military, which at that moment was ruling Egypt directly, attempted to disperse the crowd, which responded by throwing rocks. Troops drove military vehicles directly into the protesters and later fired on them, killing 25. Three days later, as backlash mounted at home and abroad, the finance minister resigned in protest. The generals, who had never seemed totally comfortable in power, appeared even more eager to step back into the shadows.

Things are going differently this time around. On Saturday, civilian security forces opened fire on largely Islamist protesters who had gathered on Cairo's Nasr Road in support of president Mohamed Morsi, deposed three weeks earlier by the military. The state violence against pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, hardly the first this month but by far the deadliest, killed at least 83 civilians. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that many had been shot in the chest or head by live ammunition.

The response both within Egypt and abroad, unlike after the October 2011 killings at Maspero, has been fairly muted. There are a few reasons for that, most of them having to do more with what made Maspero unusual than with this weekend's events. But it's another sign of a worrying trend for the Muslim Brotherhood, and for Egypt's ability to move on: the group is deeply, deeply isolated. Its members are increasingly targeted by state violence that they have little power to resist, leaving them at the mercy of a military and state security service that has long loathed them.

The Brotherhood's plight is that, while the group might have many members, it has no allies left, either within Egypt or outside it. Morsi's year in office, rife with mismanagement and miscalculations, seemed to infuriate most everyone outside the Brotherhood.

"If this was animals being killed, people would care," a pro-Morsi activist told a Guardian reporter outside a morgue where fellow protesters' bodies had been taken. "But because it's us, they don't."

Many in Egypt see the victims in Saturday's shootings as anything but. And while they're right in pointing out that the Brotherhood showed little concern for protester deaths while in power themselves, the killings of pro-Morsi protesters are often justified as part of a fight against terrorism that appears largely fictitious. The military's official rhetoric, repeated on state media, has described the Brotherhood as somehow foreign or seditionist, armed terrorists who are willing or even eager to bring the country into civil war. A number of Egyptian liberals seemed to agree, characterizing the Brotherhood deaths as just or perhaps even a deliberate ploy by the group to manipulate public opinion.

Hossam al-Hamalawy, a left-wing activist who is no fan of the Brotherhood, told the Christian Science Monitor that widespread public hate for the group had reached a sort of hysteria. "The media is lying, exaggerating, and picturing this like Islamist demons with horns creating havoc everywhere," he said. "You’re getting responses on the social networks when you tweet or post pictures [of those wounded or killed] like, 'Oh yeah, they deserve that. I wish [military leader] Sissi would kill more.'"

Outside Egypt, Morsi and the Brotherhood have gotten few signals of public support or even sympathy. Three regional players -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates -- pledged a combined $12 billion in aid to Egypt shortly after the coup, widely perceived as a show of tacit support.

The United States, which often seeks to play the role of arbiter in post-Mubarak Egypt, has been conspicuously muted in its official and unofficial response. The White House and State Department appear to be working toward a resolution behind the scenes but have held back from much criticism of the military rulers and from suggesting that the $1.5 billion in annual foreign aid could be cut. While American officials have expressed concern for the protester deaths, that concern is typically preceded and followed by an affirmation of the need to keep a close, positive relationship with the powers that be in Cairo.

The continued violence against the Brotherhood is actually bad news for all Egyptians, as it pushes the group into the margins of society, undermines the 2011 revolution's ideals of democracy and rule of law, makes national reconciliation less likely and reinforces the idea that power belongs to the people with the guns.

But the causes of this go beyond the Brotherhood's isolation. The backlash against the 2011 Maspero killings was, in many ways, more an aberration than the norm. "Outside of the reformists, state violence is never something that has been so controversial," Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, told me, noting that even the January 2011 protests against police violence had been instigated "by a mobilized minority."

The backlash against the Maspero deaths, Hanna said, had less to do with the killings and more with the killers: the military. Typically, it's civilian security services beating or killing protesters -- as they did this weekend. But Maspero was conducted by uniformed members of the military, which holds itself up as a national symbol apart from the messiness of Egyptian politics. Maspero tarnished the reputation that the generals so prize; that was the scandal.

Maybe the question, then, is not whether the Brotherhood can find allies -- if it couldn't or wouldn't after winning the country's first democratic elections, it's not clear it will now, after a year of growing public outrage against it. Maybe the question is whether the military can continue to rule, and to preside over such severe state violence, without again risking its public reputation. But the signs, so far, don't seem to indicate that the generals have yet crossed this line -- even after video surfaced showing uniformed soldiers firing into a crowd of pro-Morsi demonstrators at the Republican Guard headquarters just three weeks ago.

Update: Hanna, on Twitter, emphasizes that the reaction to the Maspero deaths was "muted" in Egypt, though he says it "changed perceptions among reformists."

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