As pressure mounts on Egypt’s military-backed interim government to forcibly disperse supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi from their massive sit-ins, some of the loudest, most passionate voices calling for security forces to clear the encampments come from liberals here.
Liberal commentators, activists and politicians — on state-controlled media and across a spectrum of independent channels — say it is long past time to evict the tens of thousands of Morsi supporters and Muslim Brotherhood backers from their sit-ins around Cairo University and the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.
“They need to put a siege upon them, and cut off their supplies of water, of cement, because they are building walls. There are weapons and criminals in there, as well as good people, but they should deal with these criminals now,” Bassel Adel said in an interview. Adel is a former member of parliament and a leader of the Constitution Party, a liberal group founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who is serving as interim vice president for foreign affairs.
The Egyptian liberals making these calls are aware that a crackdown by the military or police on a committed, cohesive, religiously inspired group could lead to bloodshed. The protesters have fortified their positions with sandbags and brick walls, and their encampments are filled with women and children. They vow not to disperse until Morsi — who has been detained without charges in an undisclosed location — is returned to office.
Authorities warned the media Sunday that they would soon cordon off the encampments. Rumors swept through the sit-ins that security forces would arrive with the dawn Monday. But authorities have apparently postponed any action.
Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told the BBC on Monday that the government has spent three weeks trying to reach an agreement with the protesters but that a court order to oust them is also being sought. “This is a parallel-track process, and ultimately it has to be resolved very soon, either by dialogue or the rule of law,” he said.
“There are conflicting positions inside the government, and even inside the security forces, about the best course of action,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“These sit-ins are massive, and even if the government decides to go in, with brute force, without respect for human rights, they would face a lot of casualties — on both sides,” Ennarah said.
Yet if some liberal voices, such as ElBaradei, advocate for more dialogue and a go-slow approach against the sit-ins, they are being drowned out by calls for law and order made by other liberals and leftists — many of the same people who decried the heavy-
handedness of Morsi and his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
“This is a violent and armed sit-in, and it is the right of every government to disperse it by law, and the people are saying that if the government does not disperse, we will do it ourselves,” said Karima el-Hifnawy, a leader of the Egyptian Socialist Party.
The liberals and their leftist allies say that the protests are not only illegal but also disruptive and that they represent a stubborn unwillingness among Morsi backers to accept new realities.
Moreover, they say, the sit-ins harbor Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have been charged with inciting violence and killing opponents.
“Protesters at peaceful sit-ins do not build walls and blockades. These protesters have weapons and they torture people, and the government should take the responsibility and disperse them,” said Rawi Toueg, a member of the supreme committee of the Free Egyptians Party, a liberal group.
Hani Salah el-Deen, a media adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said Egyptian liberals are hypocrites.
“Now the masks are falling and the liberals are confirming over and over that they have no principles, they have no logic and common sense,” he said, “when they keep demanding that the authorities break apart the protests, knowing it could result in over 10,000 martyrs.”
Many liberals fought alongside the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to oust Mubarak and to limit the power of the military after his removal. Many liberals here also voted for Morsi in the final round of the presidential election last year, after their preferred candidates failed in the first round.
Now many liberals call the Muslim Brotherhood a traitorous and terrorist organization, and they say its leadership should be barred from participating in politics, similar to their demand to ban Mubarak’s political party after his fall. The liberals allege that the Brotherhood is theocratic to its core and guilty of inciting sectarian violence.
“In peaceful protests, yes, there may be some human rights violations, but with the Muslim Brothers, there are always guns. We’re sure they are armed. These sit-ins should be dismantled, by any means, and, unfortunately, there will be injuries and probably deaths,” said Shadi Ghazali Harb, a London-trained surgeon and founder of the liberal Awareness Party.
Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said, “Liberals see the Muslim Brotherhood as a fundamental threat to all they hold dear, and that takes precedent above all else.”
“This hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood by many liberals has become so visceral, it is hard to understand from the outside. It is so intense that they would support a forced dispersal of the protests, even if it involves the killing of unarmed civilians,” Hamid added.
James Traub, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, “Perhaps we in the West were confused by the word ‘liberal,’ which we associate with a tolerant and dispassionate attitude towards difference. . . . When the stakes feel truly dire, as they do in Egypt, liberalism itself can become a form of zealotry.”