Egypt: Polarization and Genocide

Bodies of protesters seen inside a mosque in Ramses Square in Cairo. (Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters via Al Jazeera)

By Richard Falk

In retrospect, Tahrir Square was “a revolution” that never was, which has now been superseded by “a counter-revolution” that was never possible. The dislodging of a Mubarak dynasty in 2011 did not even achieve “regime change”, much less initiate a transformative political process. There was no revolution to counter. Even more modest hopes for political reform and humane governance were doomed from the start.

What then was Tahrir Square? Part project (getting rid of Mubarak and sons), part fantasy (hoping that the carnivalistic unity of the moment would evolve into the sustained pursuit of a just society), and part delusional experiment (believing that the established order of Mubarak elites and their secular opponents would be willing to rebuild a more legitimate political and economic order even if it meant that would be losing significant power and status).

The turn to “democracy” in Egypt always contained a hidden condition: the Muslim Brotherhood was welcome to participate so long as it wouldn’t come to dominate. What was anticipated in forthcoming Egyptian national elections was 25-35 percent MB support, with the related assurance that the next president of Egypt would not be associated with the Brothers or be seen as a representative of political Islam, but would be drawn from the ranks of liberal seculars (that is, anti-Mubarak, but also fearful of Islamic influence in governing circles).

Essentially, the fly in this Egyptian democratic ointment was the grassroots popularity and strength of Islam, and specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood winning control in a sequence of five elections during 2011-12, three for the parliament, and two for the presidency. Whether reasonably or not, this revelation of Islamic democratic strength was the death knell of democracy in Egypt. It frightened the anti-seculars into alliance with the fulool (remnants of the Mubarak elite), sealing the fate of the Morsi government. And since the legitimating procedures of the elections had repudiated the old Murbarak order, even in its post-Mubarak liberal, reconstituted self, the anti-MB opposition had to find an alternative strategy. They did: generate crises of governability and legitimacy via a massive populist mobilization.

The armed forces were “the joker” in the political deck. The military leadership seemed to go along with the Tahrir Square flow, but also to play its cards in such a way as to control the transition to whatever came next, claiming to be the guarantor of order. Sometimes it was perceived as having made a deal with the MB, and it should not be forgotten that Major General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi served as the Minister of Defence in the Morsi cabinet up until the day of the coup. But as the anti-Morsi momentum gathered steam, the military took over the movement, but this time with a popular mandate to restore order and economic stability that had as its first priority the bloody destruction of the MB as a rival source of economic and political power. Think of it: the group that had prevailed in a series of free elections throughout the nation is scapegoated overnight into “terrorists” that must be crushed.

When the word “terrorist” is deployed to designate the enemies of the state, it signals that the rule of the gun will replace the rule of law. It represents the adoption of extermination tactics by the state, and what has followed should be no surprise. ElBaradei’s participation in the coup and interim government, followed by his resignation, reflects the dilemma of liberals, and their confusion: making nice with the military for the sake of political control, yet not wanting too much innocent blood to be spilled. Note that most of the former liberals refuse to break with the el-Sisi interim government, having made their choice in this situation defined as better “us” than “them”.

Was the Muslim Brotherhood responsible?

Could the MB have handled things differently, and avoided the July 3 scenario? Yes, if they had kept their pledge to participate as a minority force in the new Egyptian political order, taking self-denying precautions, not to dominate the parliament, and not to seek the presidency. In other words, it is likely that if the MB had bided its time, and allowed a liberal secular candidate to fail, their overall position might be quite strong at present. This assessment presupposes that whoever was chosen to be the first post-Mubarak leader would not be able to satisfy the expectations of the Egyptian public with respect to economic recovery and social justice, and would be rejected “democratically”.

It was reported (how reliably is unknown) that in February of 2012, Nabil ElAraby, a globally known and respected liberal secularist and at the time Secretary General of the Arab League, had been told that he would have the backing for the presidency of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP) and the MB, if he had agreed to run for the Egyptian presidency. This support would have assured an electoral victory, but ElAraby prudently declined the offer.

The imprudence of the MB failure to keep its pledge of non-competition for the presidency is only now becoming apparent. Having waited some 80 years for a chance to control the destiny of the country, the MB would have been wise to wait a few more to see how things were developing in the country, especially given the forces likely arrayed against them if they took centre stage. Of course, retrospective advice is always wise, and rarely relevant.

Some have pointed to the failures of the Morsi leadership as the proximate cause of the el-Sisi coup. In other words, the fatal mistake of the MB was not their unwillingness to stay in the political background, but their failures when successful in occupying the foreground. The argument goes, had Morsi been more inclusive, more capable in negotiating international loans and attracting foreign investment, more inspirational in promoting a vision of Egypt’s future, less heavy-handed in dealing with oppositional activism, and more patient about promoting an Islamic agenda, things might have turned out differently. Perhaps it is further argued, the Morsi government would likely have lost some of its popularity due to the difficulties any leadership would have faced, but it would not be overthrown, nor would its political base be criminalised and crushed by a post-coup campaign of merciless state terror.

It is impossible to assess such a counter-factual, but I have my extreme doubts. It is notable that with few exceptions those who were so outraged by the strong arm tactics and incompetence attributed to the Morsi government have averted their eyes from or even endorsed the incredibly more bloody tactics of the el-Sisi regime, denouncing as traitors those few like ElBaradei who have defected.

After the coup: A genocidal mentality?

Although much is unknown, the sequence of four massacres when softer alternatives were readily available to restore order, the moves to criminalize the MB (detaining Morsi, arresting MB leaders, and calling on the public to demonstrate so as to legitimize this strategy of oppression), and recourse to the language of “terrorism” to demonize peaceful demonstrators seeking to uphold constitutional rights reveal a pattern of extreme alienation on the part of the coup leaders.

If polarization poisoned the well of democratic legitimacy, then its accelerated momentum led in Egypt to the emergence of a genocidal climate of opinion. This is what is happening in the country, making it almost to be expected that many of the coup supporters among the mass of Egyptians find nothing wrong with the tactics of the security forces since July 3, enthusiastically call for el-Sisi to become the next president of the country, and view the followers of the MB as undeserving of being treated as “Egyptians”, belonging outside the pale of humanity deserving neither mercy nor rights. In such an atmosphere, anything goes.

I suppose in this evolving Egyptian melee we can learn about the way the world works by noting who is silent, who is approving, and who is ridiculously calling on both sides to show “maximum restraint”. We still live in a world where hard power strategic calculations almost always outweigh soft power affirmations associated with democracy and human rights. It is not a pretty picture, whether one wonders about such Islamic stalwarts as Saudi Arabia and the Conference of Islamic States or such liberal international advocates as the United States, the European Union, and even the UN Secretary General.

These Egyptian developments also raise awkward questions about whether there exist outer limits to the politics of self-determination, which has authenticated many national movements against European colonialism and oppressive rule. Egypt is in the throes of what might be called a process of Satanic self-determination, and there is no prospect of humanitarian intervention even if the motivation were present, which it isn’t. Who would even have the temerity to invoke the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), so pompously relied upon to validate the destruction of Gaddafi’s Libya, in the dire circumstances of the Muslim Brotherhood? R2P is not an emergent principle of international law, as advocates claim, but an operative principle of geopolitical convenience.

The ethos of human solidarity means that none of us dedicated to human rights, to the accountability of leaders for crimes against humanity, and to the quest for humane governance should abandon Egypt in this tragic hour of need. At the same time, we need to admit that there is no politics of human solidarity capable of backing up the ethos even in the face of genocidal tremors.

– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. (This article was published in August 21, 2013 at A Jazeera –

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