Fawaz Gerges on Egypt: a clash of two opposing identities

Fawaz Gerges

"What you also have now is populism; many Egyptians who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood feel a sense of hyper nationalism; they're rallying around the flag. And that's what the Egyptian government has been able to do."

As a frequent visitor to Egypt Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, has never seen the country as deeply divided as it is today along ideological, social and political lines. "It is more polarised now than it was under the Mubarak regime" he says.

It is seven weeks since Egypt's first democratically elected leader Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown from power by General Al Sisi of the armed forces. Since then over 1,000 of its members have been killed and dozens of its top leaders arrested by the military led government who are now in charge.

This conflict, says Gerges, is not just about power; it's about the future identity of Egypt. "On the one hand you have the religious frame of reference which the Islamists subscribe to and on the other hand you have deeply entrenched, old nationalist sentiments."

"What you also have now is populism; many Egyptians who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood feel a sense of hyper nationalism; they're rallying around the flag. And that's what the Egyptian government has been able to do."

Whilst the Egyptian state media paints the Muslim Brotherhood to be a national security threat, incompetent, not Egyptian or nationalistic enough and that Morsi cannot be trusted to govern, the narrative from the international community is that Morsi's ouster was a coup.

The military backed government is positioning the Egyptian public and the international community as "an extension against the West's fight against terrorism" says Gerges.

This week the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, was detained; a "qualitative escalation" against the movement, he says. Under Hosni Mubarak the Supreme Leader was never arrested. "There was an element of restraint even in Mubarak's targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now it seems to me that there is no restraint."

It was Tuesday when the news broke of his detention; a video circulated of him seated on a sofa in the residential flat in Nasr City where he was found. Later this month he will stand trial for allegedly killing protestors in June.

Badie's detention is part of a widespread purge against the movement says Gerges. "It points to signs that the military backed government has decided to break the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood. We are witnessing a further clampdown with the top leaders being arrested. It pours gasoline on a raging fire."

The strategy is to remove the Brotherhood from the streets and to bring stability. It's hard to know if the military backed government have a long-term plan, says Gerges, but the resignation of former Vice President Mohammed Baradei – "one of the few liberal minded cabinet members" - this week suggests how to deal with the movement has not yet been universally decided on.

"There was no consensus about how to proceed against the Muslim Brotherhood. Obviously Mohammed Baradei made it very clear that he was against the violent clearing of the protestors and he said that he could not accept the shedding of civilian blood."

Another liberal cabinet member is Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa el-Din, says Gerges, who also opposes this particular policy. But one thing is for sure; General Al Sisi is calling the shots. "I think, even though we lack information about what's happening within this inner circle, I think it's General Abdul Fattah Al Sisi who is the driver and the king maker."

In light of this escalation, there is a real danger that Egypt is descending into all out confrontation, says Gerges, between the military backed government and a sizeable amount of Egyptians on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist on the other hand.

The question, says Fawaz, "is how do you find your way out of a deadly embrace?"

"I've spent a lot of years researching the Islamist movement in Egypt and I've interviewed all shades of opinion among Islamists. One of the lessons that I have taken out of my field study is that the Muslim Brotherhood would not allow itself to be trapped again. It will not resort to violence. The consensus within the Brotherhood is that violence plays into the hands of the security apparatus."

Yet despite this, the problem now is that the Brotherhood has found itself with its back against the wall. "The fear is that with the leadership either incarcerated or in hiding, young followers would take action into their own hands and things would spiral out of control."

What certainly did not help was when Egypt's interim Prime Minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, called for the legal dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood on 17 August. "This would be the worst case scenario" says Gerges.

It would mean an open-ended confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists with the exclusion of one of the most important political and social movements of Egypt. "It would mean a major setback for the institutionalisation of democracy."

"This decision could easily plunge Egypt into a low intensity, politically driven insurgency along the 1990s line" he continues. Between 1992 and 1997 Egypt witnessed a deadly insurgency between the Mubarak regime and Islamist militants in which almost 10,000 Egyptians were injured and killed.

The process of healing and reconciliation is so difficult because "there is no third neutral, credible force inside Egypt to mediate between the military backed government and supporters and the Islamists" says Gerges. That's why the international community are so vital right now, to help mediate and bridge the divide between these two clashing identities, "Islamism and Egyptianism."

It is the EU, along with the UN, that is best equipped to bridge the divide. They are neutral and don't come with "historical luggage" like the US who have long-standing ties with Egyptian rulers – Anwar Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi - and "is deeply mistrusted by many Egyptians."

The most urgent priority is to stop the killing. The press on both camps need to diffuse the crisis and the military backed government need to stop arresting top leaders and release others. "I don't think the international community can afford to stand passively by while Egypt descends into all out chaos" he adds.

Considering Egypt is the region's largest country, if it were to descend into all out civil war, "it would have major implications for regional security and international peace as well. And that's why the international community cannot afford to sit and be idol whilst Egypt disintegrates."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor