Egypt could be reverting to a delicate form of secular authoritarianism as it battles pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters, militant Islamists in Sinai and since there is a general lack of stability that has crushed the Egyptian economy. More than two months have passed since General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi deposed Islamist president Mohammad Mursi and submitted a road map for the future that promised to restore civilian rule to the country as early as next year. Since then, the military-led interim government has been able to withstand international uproar over the July 3 coup and the overthrowing of the country’s first freely elected leader.
From afar, it looks like Egypt is inching slowly towards completing the transition into democratic rule. Interim President Adly Mansour has stuck to deadlines stipulated in the road map. Last week, he appointed a 50-member panel entrusted with drawing up a revised constitution. The panel has 60 days to submit a final version of the revised constitution to Mansour, who, in turn, has 30 days to announce the date of a referendum. While the Muslim Brotherhood has refused to participate, the Salafist Al Nour Party, which has backed Mursi’s ouster, is represented.
However, it is not all quiet on the political front. Egyptians remain deeply polarised over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s political life. While Defence Minister Al Sissi has promised not to exclude any party from political life, there is pressure on the government to disband the movement. Since the forced dispersal of pro-Mursi supporters in Rabba Al Adwia and Al Nahda Square on August 14, which killed hundreds, the media were having a field day demonising the Brotherhood and calling for its eradication from political life.
The government responded by cracking down on key Brotherhood leadership. All, including former president Mursi, will stand trial on a number of charges, including incitement to murder and collaborating with foreign governments. In the coming few weeks, the government will decide the future of the 85-year-old movement. The current onslaught has raised questions about the role of political Islam in the future of Egypt. But in spite of the crackdown and the decapitation of the Brotherhood’s leadership, supporters of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood continue to stage demonstrations across the country, albeit in dwindling numbers. In some cases they have been forcibly suppressed. While the government accuses pro-Mursi supporters of resorting to violence and terrorism, last Tuesday, Amnesty International (AI) called for an independent investigation into killings by Egyptian security forces as well as torture and violations of the rights to free speech and assembly.
Similarly, last Monday, four Egyptian rights groups denounced the military trials of civilians accused of attacking soldiers, saying the army had convicted more than 60 people since the July 3 coup.
The attack on the Muslim Brotherhood has become a form of present-day McCarthyism and the current hunt down of its leadership may succeed in radicalising young followers. Although no connection has been established between last week’s assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohammad Ebrahim in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood, the showdown between the military-led government and supporters of the movement may trigger similar attacks.
A Sinai-based jihadist group, calling itself Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, has claimed responsibility for the assassination plot. The army has been engaged in a sophisticated cleanup campaign in northern Sinai since the overthrow of Mursi. Many Egyptians make a connection between the ouster of Mursi and the recent rise in attacks by jihadist groups in Sinai.
The army has made some important breakthroughs, but eradicating jihadist groups, some with links to Al Qaida, will take time. Last week’s attempt on the life of the interior minister was the first sign that terrorists were able to carry out operations in the Nile Valley.
The showdown between Islamist extremists and the army has solidified Al Sissi’s grip on power. He enjoys overwhelming support among Egyptians to the extent that there is a popular campaign now to gather millions of signatures calling on him to run for president. The general had stated earlier that he had no political ambitions. But that could change.
Support for Al Sissi, since the coup, indicates that a majority of Egyptians will want to see the country run by a strong leader who will provide stability even at the expense of democracy. This has prompted Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fotouh, the leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to declare that constitutional statements that enshrine the legitimacy of the 2011 revolution and the army’s non-interference in politics should be preserved in the new draft of the constitution.
The face-off with the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and militant groups, will strengthen the hands of the military. Even if Al Sissi opts not to contest the next presidential elections, it is clear that the army will continue to play a pivotal role in Egypt’s political life as it had done for the last six decades.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.