Everyone in Egypt woke up on Monday 8 July with the horrible news that the army had shot dead 51 Muslim Brothers near barracks in Cairo. Immediately, two different stories got propagated. Muslim Brothers claimed their people were unarmed, held a peaceful protest when suddenly the military opened fire. They even showed images purporting infant casualties. The armed forces –and its sympathizers- showed images of (what appeared to be) armed Muslim Brothers trying to attack the barracks. They claim the first casualty was a soldier. They also demonstrated that the images of dead children were old footage.
It is characteristic of the propaganda battle currently raging in Egypt. This battle over truth is extremely important. It sets the mood of the international community just as much as it does that of the Egyptians. A similar propaganda battle is fought over what actually happened on Wednesday July 3th: a military coup or a military intervention. This is no innocent word game but a crucial point that determines the future of Egypt and many Arab states.
To understand what is happening now, every detail of these last months is important. A brief overview. In August it was president Morsi that deposed the hated military leader Tantawi and replaced him by general Sissi. Morsi was convinced Sissi would never be unfaithful. People first took to the street in November, when Morsi grabbed all power while forcing a constitution on Egyptians. Back then it is army commander Sissi that called for dialogue. In the months that followed Sissi repeatly implored Morsi to transform his government to a coalition of national unity. Morsi refused.
When it became clear protests on June 30th would be massive, it was again the army by way of Sissi that asked Morsi to present a solution. When Morsi did exactly the opposite in a speech a couple of days prior to June 30th, even threatening the opposition, Sissi advised the president to resign in order to avoid spiralling violence. Morsi kept repeating he was legitimately elected and that nothing could ever change that. For Muslim Brothers the prevailing sentiment was that all would eventually pass.
The number of people that turned out on June 30th was surprisingly big. Google Earth counted 33 million. That more than a third of Egyptian population. Everybody in Egypt realised that very soon the situation would become untenable. Nonetheless, acting as an go-between, general Sissi sought a solution. He gave all Egyptian politicians 48 hours to come to an understanding. He himself was thinking of the organisation of a referendum.
He ran that idea by the powers that be: the Islamic university Al Azhar, the Coptic church, the opposition through the figure of Mohamed El Baradei and by the youth that was at the origin of the so-called ‘Rebel-campaign’, the actual organisers of the street protests. It was the youth that refused. They wanted Morsi resignation and nothing else. One of their leaders told Sissi: “I want to tell you sir, you might be the commander of the army, but for the moment the people are your commander. Now you must listen to the people and support us”. Apparently this was the decisive contribution that lead to the military intervention. The so-called transition plan advanced by the army was a copy-paste transcription of the plan the “Rebel-youth” had circulated earlier.
Coup or no coup, today Egypt has two presidents: one elected president supported by the Muslim Brothers and one appointed president supported by a large majority of the Egyptian people. No side wants to budge. This is the reason for the current violence in the streets. Up to and including the unacceptable violence of the military directed at pro-Morsi protesters.
What now? Either we enter a French Revolution scenario with one faction reckoning with and succeeding to another every year, finally ending in dictatorship. Or genuine talks recognising all political groups are initiated. Recent events clearly forfeit any scenario that includes Mohamed Morsi. What happened this week makes it increasingly obvious that a stable future is just as impossible with the military in the cockpit. The fact that almost none of the parties and factions of the new coalition agreed on the new constitutional declaration shows that the army can’t just do whatever they want.
The only valid script that can bring Egypt from chaos to order will have to be based on the very principles that got 33 million Egyptians in the streets. It’ll have to be an Egypt that allows everybody the freedom to be themselves. Whether they are Salafi, Muslim, Copt or even atheist. Every government or president that tries to curtail this freedom in one way or another will once again face a full Tahrir and a new revolution.
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(with thanks to Kristof Debergh for the translation)