Those who hoped they had seen the last of violent protests after the controversial Constitution was ratified in December saw those hopes dashed, once again, late last month.
The second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution was marked by bloodshed, as protesters clashed with security forces across the country. There were myriad reasons behind the protesters’ anger, not the least is frustration at an Islamist-dominated political scene.
Several offices belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were attacked, and many chants called for the fall of the current government. It is clear that the political polarization that sparked the December 6 battles outside the Ittihadiya Palace is still smoldering.
At press time, sporadic clashes were ongoing, and it appears the rift in Egyptian society is unlikely to heal soon.
Some pundits have since identified the fighting and fiery rhetoric as symptoms of the widening political divisions in the country and many fear this may be the first indications of a civil war. Political analysts and sociologists, on the other hand, aren’t willing to go that far in their assessment but are still worried about what lies ahead.
Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, affirms the presence of a clear political divide between the different currents, but it is not the necessarily the divide portrayed by the opposing sides.
Bayat, who taught at the American University in Cairo from 1986 to 2003, notes that the rift is not Islamists versus secular forces, as there many Muslims and other religiously observant individuals against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.
“The great divide in Egypt seems to be between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis on the one side, and non-Islamists on the other,” he says, noting that for the time being the political and ideological differences between the Brotherhood and Salafis have been set aside, giving way to some kind of undeclared front against the non-Islamist forces.
“I truly wished there were a bigger trend of wasatiyya (centralism) to bridge this wide divide.”
Dr. Paul Sedra, an associate professor of history at Canada’s University of Simon Fraser University and the Modern Middle East Editor at History Compass academic journal, Egypt is now recovering from the experience of the debate over the constitution and the referendum.
A specialist in modern Egyptian history, Sedra observes that Morsi has failed to speak as a representative of all Egyptians, attributing this to pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood forcing the president to take a politicized approach to his leadership.
“You know, with a president that had claimed to be the president for all Egyptians when he appeared in Tahrir and took his oath, to see what is happening to Egypt, particularly over the past couple of months, has been extremely distressing,” says Sedra.
While the promise of stability was once again at the heart of the referendum, he says that promise remains elusive. “I think now we are seeing the result that we really don’t have stability,” he explains.
“With the decline in the currency and the economic troubles that Egypt is facing at the moment, it really demonstrates that the international community has a great deal of concern over what’s happening in Egypt.”
Mona Abaza, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, notes the alleged Itihadiya attacks by Islamists have damaged the legitimacy of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are supposed to be the authority.
“Morsi himself or his group the Muslim Brotherhood are sending militias and then killing people.
The legitimacy of his power should be questioned now more than ever,” she maintains.
Abaza adds that for two years now political players like the ultra conservative Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have been using a very aggressive discourse that is sectarian and has no respect for the notion of citizenship.
“We have the seeds of sectarianism that are bred through the so-called legitimate institution that is a monopolizing power. […] The whole problem is that the institution that is monopolizing power is in itself the main source of violence.
That is going to be the problem we are dealing with,” she says.
During the Itihadiya Palace clashes, preachers and journalists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamist groups appeared on independent satellite channels calling the sit-in protesters “traitors” and “infidels” and accusing them of using alcohol and drugs and having sex in their tents.
On the other side, social media and many news websites ran images of men carrying the Qu’ran and knives attacking people at the scene of the protests, suggesting that Morsi supporters are waging a “holy war” against the protesters.
Dr. Hazem Kandil, a political sociologist at the University of Cambridge and a specialist in military-security institutions and
revolutionary movements, explains that the Islamist groups’ use of religious discourse started to appear when the threat of an
alliance between pro-revolution groups and old-regime sympathizers to overthrow the current regime became imminent. He adds
that this use of religion further escalated the polarization, leading to a point where Islamists became a political group who decided
that anyone who is opposed to them was “fair game” for attack.
“They can be called traitors, spies, atheists […] so this makes the polarization sharper and sharper.
It becomes a very messy situation for everyone,” Kandil says.
“The Islamists cannot turn off this effective weapon [religion]; they see that they won the last referendum with it and they saw that this solution is intimidating many people and is swaying others in their camps. So they are finding it difficult to get rid of it.”
Sedra points out how the discourse has often been carried out by prominent figures in the government and ruling party, including Mohamed El Beltagy, Freedom and Justice Party secretary-general, and the pro-Brotherhood preacher Safwat Hegazy, who is a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Morsi, Sedra says, has never tried to come out and bring society together.
“I think that this is a very dangerous situation because you can’t control how people interpret these various sectarian messages,” he says.
“The possibility for sectarian violence in the future as a result of people making these sort of statements, I think, is a danger that Egypt is facing.”
The professor also adds that it is very important for the president to hold accountable people who undertake violence, for instance, the so-called Hazemoun, partisans of Salafi preacher and former presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, who were allegedly involved in setting fire to the Wafd Party’s headquarters.
The Hazemoun have also organized sit-ins at Media City, laying siege to many satellite channels and allegedly attacking media personalities.
“Again, it is disturbing that the president seems to be giving a free pass to particular groups insofar as he sees it to be to his political advantage to do so,” Sedra claims.
“There is no question that the president and his supporters have definitely been using this inflammatory rhetoric to divide people rather than unite people and he is using this for his own political purposes.”
Abaza notes that using religion for political ends is not a new phenomenon. “It is [President Anwar] Sadat who introduced Islamic Shariah in the Constitution, it is Sadat who was willing to introduce a law that said that two Copts equal one Muslim eyewitness.
He is the one who gave much more facilities for the construction of mosques and made a lot of problems for the Copts to renovate the churches. The exodus of the Coptic community [has been happening] since Sadat.”
Hosni Mubarak continued playing politics with religion as well by giving more power to Al Azhar, the sociologist alleges. “We pay the price of that now.
The problem is that it is fully blown: It is a continuation of the same politics of Mubarak but now we have them [Islamists] in power, playing the same cards.”
As much as there is a sectarian discourse being used, there is also a movement of resistance to it. Abaza points to examples of an incident where women reportedly fought back against Islamists trying to close down a hair salon. Even the need to fight back presents a problem, though.
“I have friends who are very much afraid because, at the end, who is more organized, who has weapons? The militias — the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers. I think that once you start in an armed struggle, you will lose blood,” she says.
“We can easily say that it is the brink of a civil war, and you can see this polarization, everybody is preparing. You read the tweets, you read hundreds of articles in the press, it is as if everybody is now preparing for the next round of escalation of violence.”
But Sedra disagrees. He doesn’t see the recent clashes as the beginning of a civil war in Egypt, noting the country is not facing the same situation as Syria.
That said, he still thinks the situation presents a threat for the society. “It shouldn’t make us complacent. It is very dangerous to take the view that this couldn’t happen in Egypt because it could, and we sort of have to guard against it,” warns the historian.
“The sort of rhetoric that the president’s supporters use is very dangerous as far as social cohesion in Egypt today.”
Bayat notes, “I will not go too far speculating about a civil war in Egypt, but the truth is that I have never seen such a schism in Egypt in the [close to] two decades that I lived in the country. This is something very new to me.”
The schism shows a deep mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan by other segments of the population, Bayat says. “The anti-Ikhwan people feel with profound disgust the trickery, double-talk and monopolization of power.
The Ikhwan in power deeply angers them.”
Although the political divisions and sectarian rhetoric have taken much space in debates, the analysts are more alarmed by the state of the economy than anything else.
“The collapse of the economic situation is I think one of the most dangerous, this is more than religion,” says Abaza. “So far the Muslim Brothers do not seem to have any economic program, what they want is grab power.”
Sedra notes that issues related to social justice are far more important than any controversy over ultra-conservatism, which he sees as a diversion from what is really at stake.
“The issue that is going to make or break Egypt is this question of whether people are going to be able to meet their most basic social and economic needs. […] Because people’s livelihood are at stake and if people can’t find enough to eat, those are the circumstances under which revolts become particularly violent,” he says.
The historian predicts that if the poor economic situation continues for six months or a year, a second revolution might take place — one more heated, contested and fierce than January 25.
“What is most important and most urgent is getting Egyptians back to work and getting Egyptians earning enough to secure their daily bread and their livelihood,” Sedra explains. “[T]hat’s the most important test of the new government.”
It sounds simple on paper, but the analysts note that change takes time, and challenges lie ahead.
“This is the thing with revolution, revolutions are very unpredictable. […] I think there are so many variables — economic
sociopolitical — that will decide how things will go,” says Kandil. For example, he notes that if the economic situation improves
opposition against the Islamists will decrease, while if things economically get worse there will be more violence and instability. The question is how the government will respond to the demands of the people.
“We either have the people in power realize they really have to resolve some of the long-standing issues that people have, in a radical and comprehensive manner, or if they continue the policy of fooling people and give them false hopes and silencing them, they are only stretching out the period of turmoil,” says Kandil.
Kandil feels the political opposition must be more organized and unified under one election list for upcoming parliamentary elections, in hopes that can lead to a more balanced parliament that can push for more concessions from the government.
“The biggest problem with the revolution is that there has been no organization representing the revolution, in popular uprising it can be ineffective,” he says, adding that the lack of unified revolutionary actors will inevitably lead to turmoil.
Despite the recent events and the uncertain outcomes of the upcoming elections, the analysts preach patience and hope.
“I think there is a tendency for people to get very depressed about the situation, and I think that people need to put some historical perspective about the whole situation,” Sedra says.
“Think about where we were three years ago compared to where we are now and it is remarkable the changes that Egypt has seen[…] But the thing is revolutions take a long time and I think that people need to realize that, it is going to take a long time to accomplish all of the goals of the revolution.”
Watching the events unfold around her, Abaza still has a lot of hope for a good outcome. “I still have a belief in the people: This is a popular revolution, the street is very lively […] It is a very moving thing that the people in the streets are continuing [even though they are] not being backed by the powers.” et