New and sometimes unexpected friendships are forming as the entire region adjusts to the violence unfolding in Cairo.
Observers tuning-in to the sectarian narrative in today’s Middle East may find it jarring to see realignments by some of the region’s players as violent crisis engulfs Egypt. For those who have watched the oftentimes dissonant regional politics unfold over the years, such repositioning will seem less surprising.
Sectarianism came to dominate and characterize the relentless turmoil in Iraq for the past decade. Alarmingly, it is now increasingly becoming a sinister card played by various actors in other conflicts erupting in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 that saw longstanding dictators overthrown.
Both Egypt and Syria are on the brink of descent into ever-worse bloodshed. While some analysts believe the crisis in Egypt may not deepen into a full-fledged civil war as in Syria, many fear the Egyptian military’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the group’s determination to reinstate Mohamed Morsi as president could dangerously push Egypt to a point of disorder and chaos.
Polarization hardening and violence rising
Mara Revkin, a former deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Center, sees the latest crackdown “only hardening” the determination of Morsi’s supporters to resist the military and anticipates higher levels of violence.
This could see a return to the kind of “low-level domestic insurgency that plagued Egypt in the 1990s” before the Gamaa Islamiyya and other radical groups in Egypt renounced violence in favor of political participation, she told the Jerusalem Post.
Revkin warned that formerly militant groups could be re-radicalized and sectarian violence “analogous to levels in Iraq” may be witnessed.
With more than 830 dead and thousands of others injured, Egypt’s military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi claimed on Sunday that the army would not seize political power but also would not tolerate continuing unrest. He also called for the inclusion of Morsi supporters in the political process.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is part of Egyptian society. You cannot isolate it,” said Bashir Abdel-Fattah, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The Brotherhood was officially dissolved by Egypt’s military rulers in 1954, but registered itself as an NGO in March in response to a court case brought by the group’s opponents who contested its legality.
It’s not clear how el-Sissi’s remarks, his first since last week’s deadly crackdown on two Cairo encampments of Morsi supporters, jive with a proposal to disband the Brotherhood movement made by interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi.
Such a move would force the group underground once again, target its sources of funding and could see larger-scale arrests of its members, thus forcing them outside of the law.
More than 1,000 already have been arrested. The proposal has raised the stakes in the bloody struggle between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood for the control of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The United States, the European Union and other Western countries have denounced the tragic wave of killings in Egypt, a strategic country straddling Asia and Africa that operates one of the world’s major trade arteries, the Suez Canal, and which is only one of two Arab countries to have a signed peace treaty with Israel.
But regional alliances tell a different story. Arab Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, as well as Jordan in the Levant, firmly back the Egyptian military. Turkey, Qatar and Iran, despite supporting opposite sides of the struggle in Syria, support the Muslim Brotherhood and its particular agenda.
Excepting Qatar, the Arab Gulf states are largely suspicious of the Brotherhood. Resistant to change, they fear revolutionary movements that could pose a risk to their autocratic rule. They view Iran and the Brotherhood as threats to their kingdoms. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been jockeying for regional power ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq removed Saddam Hussein from the picture.
Those Arab Gulf states were relieved to see the Brotherhood weakened and have promised $12 billion in aid to Egypt’s new authorities to surmount imminent fuel and wheat storages. Saudi Arabia also has hinted that it could step in with more assistance should Washington decide to cut its $1.6 billion annual military aid package.
Jordan has been the only Arab country to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to operate legally for decades as a political entity, through its Islamic Action Front party. But the Brotherhood has boycotted the past two parliamentary elections, saying the political gerrymandering system favors Bedouin loyalists of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Jordan now has thrown its weight behind the Egyptian post-coup interim government’s attempt to “impose the rule of law” and restore security to the country.
Iran historically has had poor relations with Cairo ever since former President Anwar Sadat offered refuge in 1980 to the deposed and ailing Shah of Iran. But it witnessed a detente with the Morsi regime, viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as part of what it calls the “Islamic awakening” in the region.
A huge stumbling block in the budding relationship, however, was Morsi’s strong support for the Sunni Muslim-dominated Syrian rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad, an Iranian patron. Iran has provided senior Revolutionary Guard officers to help Assad with military strategy while enlisting soldiers from the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah to fight alongside Assad troops.
Furthermore, Shia Iran’s support for the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood could strike some as a big contradiction given the theme of Sunni-Shia sectarianism that is increasingly emphasized in media reports on Syria and Iraq. However, the Islamic Republic — which insists its foreign policy doesn’t fall along sectarian lines — has viewed the Brotherhood, at least at this stage, as a fellow revolutionary movement whose end goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. Of course, other, more extreme groups like al-Qaida don’t view the Brotherhood’s methods or ideology as “revolutionary” at all — nor do they conceal that they consider many minority groups to be heretics. But the Brotherhood, too, showed in recent weeks that it was willing to walk the path of confrontation and possible chaos rather than accept calls for dialogue and reconciliation. The group tends to play a “zero-sum” game.
Turkey and Qatar also back Egypt’s Brotherhood and support Syria’s Sunni Muslim-dominated rebel fighters with weapons and other material support. And unlike Saudi Arabia, they have not worried particularly whether the arms were being channeled to more radical and sectarian elements among the rebels.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has politically battled the country’s mainly secular military for years, so events in Egypt bear some familiarity. Erdogan also ordered a widely condemned crackdown on protesters defying his rule in July.
Analysts said the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square may doom plans for building a mosque there, a decades-old ambition of many wishing to see Islam-based governance in Turkey. If it is not built, it will mark Erdogan’s second failed attempt. As mayor of Istanbul in 1997, he saw his dream dashed by military intervention.
Meanwhile, tiny Gulf Arab state Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas, has jockeyed for diplomatic power in the region vastly disproportionate to its size. A strong supporter of Egypt’s Brotherhood, its pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite TV station has been giving pro-Morsi protesters a sympathetic hearing as the pro-Brotherhood channels in Egypt remain shut.
Sectarianism rears its ugly head once again
What have been grossly underreported are the attacks on Egypt’s ancient Coptic and other Christian churches throughout the country. Coptic authorities said that at least 80 of its churches have been destroyed, some totally burnt to the ground. Most news agencies are reporting half that number.
Witnesses also said thugs ransacked a Catholic church and set fire to an Anglican church in the southern Egyptian town of Malawi. The Brotherhood has been accused of inciting anti-Christian sentiment, but it denies targeting the churches. Instead, it accuses government agents for the attacks. Christian homes and businesses also have been ransacked.
Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 84 million and relations with Muslim neighbors easily can be strained. They have questioned why they have been targeted as the conflict lies between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.
“We really suffered in the period that pro-Morsi supporters were protesting,” said a Coptic woman, who simply identified herself as Amal.
“I was constantly verbally abused for being a Christian, even on the public buses. They accused us of being infidels and that we as Christians deserved to be wiped off the face of this country because they believe that we do not deserve to live here.”
Egyptians want “this battle over,” said veteran Egyptian left-wing journalist Hani Shukrallah.
“The intensity of hatred of the Brotherhood’s rule was really unprecedented, more even than against the Mubarak regime, precisely because you had an attempt to recreate an authoritarian system,” he said.
“Would anyone in the West dare to ask that a fascist organization participate in political life?” a representative of the Egyptian journalists committee, Jamal Fahmi, pointedly asked. “Is the West angry at the Egyptian people, who within a year exposed the face of the Brotherhood?”
Ironically, Egypt’s longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the 2011 uprising is expected to be released from jail soon after a prosecutor on Monday cleared him in a corruption case.
Stay tuned to the next installment of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. It may prove to be as opportunist as the last.