In Egypt, calm starts to come after crackdown, but future remains uncertain


A supporter of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi chants slogans against the Egyptian army during a march after the Friday prayer near al-Nour mosque in Cairo. (Manu Brabo/AP)
August 24, 2013

As the challenge posed to Egypt’s new military rulers by the Muslim Brotherhood begins to fizzle, a semblance of normalcy is returning to the streets of a capital still reeling from the bloodiest eruption of unrest in the country’s modern history.

The traffic jams are back, the stores have opened and the cafes are full — at least during the day — as security measures choke off efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood to duplicate the protests that brought down two presidents in less than three years.

On Saturday, the government announced that a nighttime curfew, in force for the past 10 days, would be shortened by two hours, beginning instead at 9 p.m., a small relief in a country where people are accustomed to socializing, shopping and doing business late into the night.

But as Egypt embarks on yet another phase of its turbulent history — one in which a military-backed government, not so different from the one toppled in 2011, is in charge — an undertow of anxiety pervades the widespread popular acclaim that has greeted the return of the generals to political power.

Even the truncated curfew reinforces the sense that Egypt is in crisis, leaving people stuck indoors with little to do other than watch the pro-government television channels broadcasting endless attacks on the “terrorist” activities of the vilified Brotherhood. “Egypt fighting terrorism,” proclaims a logo prominently displayed on the screen of the state-run television network.

Deeply polarized

The invective has helped swing public opinion against the Islamist movement, which until July 3 was at the helm of the country’s first democratically elected government.

But it has also deepened the polarization of the country in ways that could backfire on the military in the weeks and months ahead as those squeezed out of the political process look for alternative ways to express themselves. More than 900 people were killed and thousands arrested in the army crackdown against supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, which has left the Brotherhood’s legendary organizational structures in disarray and created a potentially deep well of personal grievance.

Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister, told reporters Saturday that restoring security is his government’s main priority. If the price of adopting less harsh tactics “is that people don’t feel secure, we won’t accept that,” he said, according to comments reported by the local media.

He said it was important also to pursue a political process aimed at restoring democracy, but he emphasized that it should not include “those who don’t accept the principles of no use of violence, no religion in politics, no attacks against minorities and no discrimination” — allegations the government has repeatedly leveled against the Brotherhood.

“The predominant ideology now is one of exclusion,” said Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst for the International Crisis Group in Cairo. “Reconciliation is not on anyone’s agenda, including the Islamists, and it is likely to persist for the foreseeable future with no outcome . . . other than more security crackdowns and intermittent violence.”

For some who participated in the 2011 protests aimed at replacing dictatorship with democracy, it is a sad moment. “We have to be honest and admit our revolution has died,” said Saleh Fekry, 26, who was among those who thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The release of the former president from prison last week, to a military hospital, served to reinforce the sense that the old days are back, perhaps with even greater levels of oppression than before.

Indeed, there are signs that the military-backed government may also be setting its sights on liberal activists. The Web site of the newspaper al-Ahram reported Saturday that two prominent activists, Asmaa Mahfouz and Esraa Abd el-Fattah, who played a prominent role in the movement that ousted Mubarak, have been referred by the general prosecutor to the State Security Prosecution for investigation on charges of espionage.

Fekry said that most of his friends “unfortunately” support the military’s crackdown and that those who do not are afraid to take action, for fear of being branded terrorists.

“Everyone who speaks out against what the military did is accused of being Brotherhood . . . and therefore terrorists,” he said. “People have guns, and everyone is defending their neighborhood. It’s very dangerous.”

The prospect of Egypt descending into a Syria-style civil war is considered remote, not least because the country lacks the clear sectarian divide between the rulers and the ruled that went a long way toward fueling the bloodshed in Syria.

“To have a war you need two teams, and we don’t have that in Egypt,” Ahmed Mohieddine, 34, said as he sipped tea with friends at a mosque in downtown Cairo. He said he voted for Morsi but has turned virulently against him. “Most of us are Muslims, and we have a small anomaly, which is the Brotherhood. But like a pile of trash, they will be cleared out soon.”

Egypt’s revered and highly effective national army also is unlikely to see defections in the way that Syria’s did in 2011, when thousands of mostly Sunni conscripts and officers, who refused to open fire on their communities, steadily deserted and eventually formed the backbone of a rebel army.

Potential for radicalism

Even those who continue to brave the threat of bullets to participate in the dwindling number of protests say their target is not the army as an institution, only the leaders, such as Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who were instrumental in deposing Morsi.

“Egypt is not a country of violence, and the army and police are our brothers. We could never kill them,” Abdul Samer Zidan, 50, said as he joined a small cluster of several hundred people chanting slogans in support of Morsi under a bridge in Cairo’s Giza district Friday. His son Yusef was among the more than 300 people killed when the security forces stormed two Brotherhood protest camps this month, but he said he does not blame the army. “We only reject the ones who are traitors, the ones who carried out the coup,” he said.

Still, the opportunity for radical groups to exploit the frustration of even a minority of those who have suffered from the recent purge is real, analysts say.

The restive Sinai Peninsula, already a hotbed of radicalism, has seen a surge of violence in recent weeks and could serve as a recruitment ground for militants. On Friday, the extremist group al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya in Sinai called on Egyptians to “raise arms in defense of your lives and your honor,” citing the hundreds of deaths of Islamist protesters in the army’s crackdown as justification.

“The fact of the matter is that you can’t kill and arrest a whole section of the population,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “It’s no secret that if you close off meaningful politics, some are going to turn to violence. And all you need is a minority to turn to violence, and it could have a long-term impact on Egypt and the region.”

Amer Shakhatreh and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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