Egypt: is there a method to the army’s madness?

The Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation, protests have been banned and even prominent secular leaders of the revolution against Mubarak have been arrested

The way things are going from bad to worse since Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party was deposed by the military, one would think that the army and its shadow interim civilian government have a game plan about where they are taking the country. Morsi was removed last summer following popular demonstrations against his regime for suppressing his political opponents to usher in an Islamist autocracy. He was given 48 hours by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was also defence minister in Morsi’s government, to sort out the country’s political crisis and stabilise the situation. In the event that he did not or could not, and wasn’t willing to relinquish his presidency, Morsi was deposed as the country’s president on July 3 and put behind bars where he has remained since. Since then, most Brotherhood leaders have been jailed and more than 1,000 of its supporters have been killed, but the saga of daily protests against the military regime is continuing. 
While the military-appointed interim government is blaming the protests and violence on the Brotherhood, designating it as a terrorist organisation as well as banning all its charitable and social welfare outfits, the country is facing a much more pernicious threat from extremist outfits inspired by al Qaeda that recently attacked police headquarters in the northern city of Mansoura, killing 16 policemen and injuring more than 130 people. This attack, like others elsewhere in Egypt, are blamed on the Brotherhood, though an al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, active in Sinai where they have staged some attacks before, has claimed responsibility. Indeed, the Brotherhood has denied responsibility and has strongly condemned the attack. They are not known to have any connection with al Qaeda or any such extremist outfit.  
Why is General Sisi then gunning for the Muslim Brotherhood? Because ever since the military took over power in Egypt in a coup with Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser at its helm in the 1950s (though General Naguib was the nominal leader for a while), the Muslim Brotherhood has been in its sights as the best organised movement to challenge the army’s domination of the national scene. Nasser went after them, filling jails with their supporters and leaders, executing some of them and apparently crushing the movement, on the surface at least. The Brotherhood was never gone and bided its time that never came until recently with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, though the popular movement against Mubarak’s rule was an amalgam of a wide array of secular elements, including women and minorities, and was organised and highlighted through social media. However, in the ensuing elections, the Brotherhood won with Morsi as president and the Freedom and Justice Party as its political vehicle. 
Interestingly, though, the army did abandon Mubarak (who was one of them) at the end because of the scale of the popular movement against him. He was becoming a liability for the military, buoyed up by the adulation of the people for the army on their side. After Mubarak’s fall and the Brotherhood’s victory, the army tried to manipulate the political system to entrench its supremacy but by then it looked like it was too late. However, because the Brotherhood had waited so long to wield power to reshape Egypt into their Islamist mould, they were in a hurry to overhaul and control all state institutions for their ideological agenda. They simply forgot that the Arab Spring that brought down Mubarak was a broad church, which included people strongly opposed to the Brotherhood’s agenda, including some Islamist groups. And in the process they succeeded in creating a popular movement against them, even looking bigger than the crowds that had rallied against Mubarak in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country. Many anti-Morsi protesters looked to the army to resolve the situation, which they did by removing Morsi as the country’s president, convinced that from now on they would have the people on their side. 
However, if the people were expecting the army to restore democracy, they soon found out that it was more interested in restoring its own power by taking on their old foe, the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, they are going to try Morsi for all sorts of crimes, including murder, though the trial keeps on being adjourned, possibly to avoid more protests and violence. The Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation, protests have been banned and even prominent secular leaders of the revolution against Mubarak have been arrested. Indeed, there is a not so subtle attempt to whitewash the Arab Spring by sparing Mubarak from being tried for murderous attacks on protestors in the dying days of his regime. Even the spontaneous jailbreaks that occurred, releasing political prisoners like Morsi during the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime, will result in criminal charges of collaborating with foreign militants like Palestinians and Hezbollah elements. General Sisi and his interim government appear to have lost touch with reality.
However, there is probably a method to their madness. They seem to think — and they might not be all that wrong — that the Egyptian people, by and large, are sick of the continuing unrest and violence in the country and would like it to stop. The economy is in a mess, hurting the common man the most. An important source of income and employment from foreign tourists has almost dried up. While many people might sympathise with the Brotherhood, they probably have no more energy for non-stop protests and killings. The army seems to be the only organised institution, along with the police, that might put an end to Egypt’s nightmare, which explains its enthusiasm about the referendum on the revised constitution that will make the army the ultimate arbiter of Egypt’s political system. With the Muslim Brotherhood banned and the state machinery geared to make the referendum ‘a success’, its result seems a foregone conclusion. And General Sisi has indicated that after the referendum he would seek the presidency as the candidate of the Egyptian people and with the army’s mandate.
The problem though is that the Brotherhood is strongly entrenched in Egyptian society politically and, more importantly, through its vast network of charities, medical facilities and social welfare in general. By banning these activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, the army will be doing a great disservice to many poor Egyptians dependent on these services. Mubarak had recognised the important role that the Muslim Brotherhood-related charities played in Egyptian society where state services were either inadequate or non-existent. Therefore, even when the Muslim Brotherhood was banned under his regime, their charities and related organisations were still functional. 
By banning all things related to the Brotherhood, the military might end up making many people angry and unhappy. At another level, by pushing the Brotherhood into a corner, giving them no space to function in any way, the army might push some among them into al Qaeda-type terrorism and that will be a terrible outcome for the country, leading to a prolonged civil war, not unlike the situation in Algeria in the 1990s where the annulment of an election verdict for an Islamic party by the military led to a long drawn out civil war. 

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