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December 8, 2013

Egypt under the Military

Reuel S. Amdur

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While there is never a beginning in looking at a situation historically, the British conquest of Egypt in 1882 might be a good place to start. British control and influence continued, until the last British collaborator King Farouk was overthrown in 1952 by the Free Officers Movement, assisted by the CIA. Since that time, Egypt has had a succession of military heads-Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak. The short-lived government of Mohamed Morsi is the exception. Now the military is back in the saddle.

It is claimed that the current government, fronting for what in the last analysis is military rule, is temporary, until new elections are held.   That remains to be seen.  The big prize for the new government was getting Mohamed ElBaradei to accept the post of vice-president.  Former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission and an outspoken liberal, he resigned when the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed.  He is no friend of the Brotherhood but he believes that it is not possible to have a free country with such a sizeable segment of the population simply excluded from public life.

The population can be seen as divided into different camps.  Christians make up 10%.  Supporters of the military and of the Brotherhood are large groupings.  The Salafists are smaller than the Brotherhood but still a substantial group.  Liberal democratic forces make up the other group, but they are seriously divided among themselves.  While the liberals at best might be able to be a significant force if they could gain the support of the Christians, as it is their prospects appear dim.  The Christians tend to support the military for fear of the Brotherhood.

What, then, of the Christians?  Their situation has been likened to that of the Jews in Europe.  The two cases are not precisely the same because the Christians in Egypt were the majority prior to the Muslims, not the case with the Jews in Europe.  Nevertheless, the relationship of minority to majority in both cases has had its ups and downs.  In both cases, the minority group has served as a convenient scapegoat.

There have been significant numbers of attacks on Christians and their institutions since the 1970’s.  Since Mubarak’s fall, the numbers have mushroomed and then mushroomed once again with the military coup.  A report from Agence France Presse on September 1 reported attacks on 56 churches in 24 hours beginning August 14, with 15 more in the next two days.  There were others before that and since.  Homes and businesses were looted and burned, and hundreds injured and killed. 

These attacks did not just happen.  The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party blames the Copts for the overthrow of Morsi and for the military crackdown on them.  In July, their website referred to “the Military Republic of Tawadros.”  He is the current Coptic pope.  On August 14, their web charged that the Copts had declared war on Islam and Muslims.  It is true that Tawadros appeared in a public event supporting the military coup, but so did Ahmed el-Tayyib, Grand Imam of the highly influential al-Azhar mosque.  Morsi was ousted because he was inept and attempted to grab more power than he could get away with.

Attackers of churches, businesses, and homes have carried Muslim Brotherhood banners, but others have borne al-Qaida flags, suggesting the presence of Salafists in the destruction.  Nour, the Salafist party, supported Morsi’s ouster, probably thinking that his removal might give them a better shot at power. 

Especially in the Sinai, Islamic forces have attacked and killed police and soldiers.  Elsewhere, murderous mobs find it easier to take their wrath out on helpless Christians.  In the Sinai, the attacks have led to military retaliation—closing supply tunnels to Gaza, where Hamas, which shares the Brotherhood’s ideology, is in power.

The Egyptian military have not been whole-hearted protectors of the Christians.  Before the coup, when Christians gathered to protest against an attack on a church, a military vehicle plowed into the crowd, causing death and injury.  Police, likewise, in some incidents have waited till attacks were over before arriving, stood by and watched, or in some cases actually participated.  One might ask why Brotherhood instigators and those participating in the pogroms have not been brought to the dock.  At least some participants should be identifiable.  And why are police who turned a blind eye or participated still around?  Charges against Brotherhood members and particularly against Morsi himself relate to actions that can only be described as past history.  Charges should be up to date.

Military forces have attacked, killed, and wounded peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators.  Dr. Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, the two Canadians recent released from jail in Egypt, say that they witnessed the killing of over 50 pro-Morsi demonstrators.  They themselves were beaten and jailed in conditions of severe overcrowding and extreme squalor.  Such conditions and such treatment are consistent with how things were under Mubarak.

The Brotherhood has a lot of support in Egypt, in large measure because of its network of health and social services, provided in the absence of government action in that sphere.  The response of the military has been to shut down all Brotherhood activities.  A big mistake.

What it should do is to take over these programs, secularize them, allow staff prepared to accept the secularization to continue, but replace the administrators with liberal secular-minded personnel. 

The level of support makes it difficult simply to dismantle the Brotherhood movement and make that stick.  Focusing on charges for the pogroms in particular and on rewarding the adherence to liberal values in the social programs constitutes a pair of elements that might assist in declawing the movement.  Not all elements of the Brotherhood are equally fanatical.  One thinks of the largely successful effort to wean the IRA from terrorism.  Unfortunately, the Military tend to see force alone as the solution, even in situations where it is counterproductive.

To sum up, a military régime has appointed a caretaker government pending an election next year, while continuing to act unilaterally.  The biggest opposition party, the Justice and Freedom Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed.  The more extreme Salafist Nour party sees the sidelining of the Brotherhood as an opening for them.  Liberals are divided and marginalized.  Christians are scapegoated and brutalized, leading them largely to favor the military as an alternative to the Brotherhood.  The military puts down dissent forcefully, especially if it is pro-Morsi.  Treatment of those suspected of opposition is reminiscent of the brutality of Mubarak’s police and prisons.  Will there be meaningful elections?

Thus, aid, especially military aid, continues to flow, though at a slower rate.  In all likelihood, Obama will want to play ball with any Egyptian government that steers clear of the Salafists, among whom are al-Qaida sympathizers.  Because of Egypt’s strategic location, bordering Gaza and controlling the Suez Canal, the U.S. has too much invested in its relationship simply to cut it off.

While America is not inclined to halt aid, it could use aid to put pressure on the Egyptian government to change its behavior.  First, it could demand that it accept peaceful dissent, including demonstrations by Morsi supporters.  Second, it could demand evidence that the Egyptian government is really acting forcefully to protect Christians and is bringing those attacking Christians and their institutions to justice.  Neither of these things is apt to happen without a strong push from Obama.

In the meantime, the Egyptian government in power is playing the old Cold War game and inviting Russian aid to replace what the U.S. is lessening.

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