The Road Not Taken

By Amira Howeidy | Sep 02, 2014
The Road Not Taken
Saad El-Katatni and others during their trial

Within four months of the military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi, one of the icons of liberalism serving in the new cabinet, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, admitted to CNN that those who called for political reconciliation, like himself, were alienated by the political mood, where the very concept of reconciliation has become “a dirty word” in Egypt.

Yet when Morsi was forced out on July 3 reconciliation was part of the official discourse. A new ministry for Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation was sworn in on July 16, 2013, charged with the “political management of the transitional period” to realize “comprehensive national reconciliation.” But describing demands for transitional justice as ill timed, the ministry showed little interest in its mandate.[1]

Transitional Efforts

Instead, it was Mohamed ElBaradei, vice president for international relations in the interim government, who served as the central figure in the issue.  He interpreted national reconciliation as the “acceptance of the other” and viewed it as a necessity.[2] The term itself was never defined by any party, but reconciliation was generally understood to mean a form of inclusion, or conditional integration, rather than the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process. At that time it also meant devising a political solution to address the Muslim Brotherhood’s massive sit-ins protesting Morsi’s ouster, which lasted for more than two months.

ElBaradei’s efforts during the two and a half months when he was in power focused on inviting international and Arab mediators to diffuse tensions, including European Union foreign minister Catherine Ashton, who visited Cairo twice in July 2013.[3] He attempted a deal that would allow negotiations to take place; protesters would scale back their encampment in Rabaa El-Adawiya square in east Cairo and the authorities would release from prison Saad El-Katatni, leader of the Brotherhood’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, together with Al-Wasat party leader Abul Ela Madi. But after the apparent approval of both sides, the authorities reneged, refusing to release El-Katatni.[4]

Since ElBaradei was part of the July 3 political order, he supported the demand of the authorities that the Muslim Brotherhood acknowledge the massive 30 June street protests which led to Morsi’s ouster. Brotherhood leaders, on the other hand, demanded that Morsi be allowed to return to power briefly and step down of his own accord, to allow for a dignified exit.

When security forces violently dispersed the Rabaa and smaller pro-Morsi encampment in El-Nahda square south of Cairo, killing at least 800 on August 14, ElBaradei retaliated by submitting his resignation and leaving the country.[5]

The official narrative faults the Brotherhood for intransigence and claims that it obstructed progress on a deal. In the absence of full disclosure from both sides, the relative responsibility for the stalemate remains hotly debated.  

In a cabinet meeting held four days after the Rabaa encampment’s violence, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin (who served as the deputy prime minister) proposed an initiative  to “protect the democratic path,” which was reluctantly adopted by the government of Hazem Al Beblawi. The eleven-point plan made no mention of reconciliation but indirectly suggested it by allowing for the political participation of all factions with “no blood on their hands” who recognized the July 3 Road Map. It also envisioned the lifting of the emergency law and issuing laws guaranteeing the freedom of civil society work, access to information and the right to peaceful protest.[6]

From Nominal Support of Reconciliation to Exclusion

Lacking any government support and slammed by the media as an invitation for the Brotherhood’s comeback, the initiative went no further and was not referred to again. Both Bahaa-Eldin and Al Beblawi were portrayed as fifth columnists serving Brotherhood interests. Al Beblawi was described as having “shivering hands,” an expression coined as part of a growing campaign to pressure the cabinet into enlisting the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, which the premier resisted. By December 25, 2013, the group was designated a terrorist organization. (The preceding day, a security directorate in the Delta had been attacked by terrorists, and 16 people were killed. Although the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for it, the cabinet held the Brotherhood responsible nonetheless.[7])

The attack—part of the low-level insurgency that shifted from Sinai to the Delta following the Rabaa sit-in break up—complicated things for the Muslim Brotherhood on one level, but also contributed to the strengthening and hence prevalence of the exclusionist camp in the July 3 regime.

By February 2014, the Al Beblawi government abruptly resigned (Ziad Bahaa-Eldin had already resigned the month before), and the “shivering hands” rhetoric ceased. Little has changed under Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab. What Beblawi’s departure achieved however was the purging of the few remaining officials who either supported political inclusion or defended democratic principles and thus were accused of serving Muslim Brotherhood interests.

A court ruling to dissolve the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party on August 9 thus came as no surprise. By eliminating what was believed to be the only remaining legal vehicle for the political reintegration of the Brotherhood’s supporters, the verdict ended speculation on the existence of a political will for reconciliation in the near future. The decision made good on Sisi’s election campaign promise in May that, if elected president, he would not allow the Brotherhood “to exist” (his expression).

The Road Ahead

The full consequences of the exclusionist policy remain to be seen. Yet eventually, even proponents of the policy might be inclined to consider the benefits of inclusion. The recent release from prison of Helmi El-Gazzar and Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, two second-tier Brotherhood leaders, and the acquittal of Morsi’s premier Hisham Qandil in July might be a prelude to more releases.[8]

But at this point even this course is fraught with obstacles. The incessant government campaign against the Brotherhood—obliterating all their legal entities, mass arrests, freezing their assets, that of affiliate NGO’s and seizing their firms—leaves very little room for reconciliation.

One of the complicated consequences of this policy is the multitude of sentences handed down on the group’s detained leaders and members. According to the independent monitoring website Wikithawra, in the nine months that followed Morsi’s ouster 3,000 have been convicted and over 5,000 were still being tried in 339 court cases.[9] (Muslim Brotherhood leader and ex-minister Mohamed Ali Beshr is the only senior member of the group not to have been arrested since Morsi’s ouster, it is believed, for negotiation purposes.) In June a court upheld the death sentence for 183 Brotherhood supporters including group’s leader Mohamed Badie, already sentenced to death in a separate case.

If negotiations do take place, how can Sisi handle this legacy of harsh verdicts without overriding a judiciary already struggling with accusations of cooptation? How can it market any reconciliation message to a general public that has been exposed to intense Brotherhood defamation over the past two years? More important, can the Brotherhood’s vast support base—wounded, bitter, and angry—be persuaded to accept anything other than vengeance in the absence of accountability for the killing of hundreds?

Conclusion

In the year since Morsi’s ouster and despite the risks involved in protesting (which has become illegal), Brotherhood supporters and others are still demonstrating on a weekly basis unfazed by arrests or violence. This defiance of the authorities by all age groups (and conspicuous women’s participation) is unparalleled with any other experience in the group’s history of 86 years where the now imprisoned organization’s command controlled their base, avoiding confrontation with the authorities at any cost. The current year-long clampdown on the group has given its members and supporters unprecedented room for action and political movement in the absence of their leadership, possibly changing the organization forever. In the event of a dialogue, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders may not be able to exercise full control over their cadres.   

Many have speculated that alienating the group’s supporters will push them to violence. Although it is impossible to predict future behavior, it would be naïve to underestimate the levels of radicalization that have developed since Morsi’s ouster or that could possibly lead to, and not just within Brotherhood ranks.

[1] Mohammad Bassal, “The Interim Justice Minister: Interview” (in Arabic), Al-Shorouk daily newspaper, 3 January 2014, http://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=03012014&id=054860f4-deb...

[2] Mohammad El-Baradei, Tweet on 23 July 2013, https://twitter.com/ElBaradei/status/359595800940134400. In a conference on transitional justice in July 2013, El-Baradei said reconciliation is the “only path” forward with “no other alternative.” “El-Baradei: National Reconciliation is the Only Way Ahead of Us and We Will Learn from the Experiences of Countries that Preceded Us,” Al-Ahram, 24 July 2103, http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/375734.aspx

[3] In her second visit to Cairo, Ashton was allowed to meet Morsi in the undisclosed location where he was being held by the military, but she never publicly revealed the details of their discussion. In a joint press release with El-Baradei on July 31 Ashton said she came to Egypt upon the request of various parties who saw a role for the EU in resolving the political crisis. Mohammad Abdo Hussein, “El-Baradei Welcomes International Efforts to achieve national reconciliation and calls for an End to Violence,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, 31 July 2013, http://classic.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12664&article=73...

[4] Much has been reported on this deal without confirmation from the authorities such as this Reuters piece. A former minister who served in this cabinet confirmed its accuracy to this paper’s researcher. Paul Taylor, “Exclusive—West Warned Sisi’s Egypt to the End: Don’t do it,” Reuters, 14 August 2013, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/uk-egypt-protests-west-idUKBRE9...

[5] Human Rights Watch, “All According To Plan,” 12 August 2014, http://www.hrw.org/node/127942

[6]Hind Mukhtar, “‘The Government’ Announces the Launch of the Initiative for the Protection of the Democratic Path,” El-Youm El-Sabei, 21 August 2013, http://www.youm7.com/story/2013/8/21/الحكومةتعلن_إطلاق_مبادرة_حماية_المسار_الديمقراطىتتضمن_رفع_حا/1214615#.U_9kkV6Zb1p

[7] Ansar Beit El-Maqdis claimed responsibility for a failed assassination attempt on interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September 4, 2013 and the murder of a senior national security officer near his home in east Cairo three weeks later. In a video released December 2013 the primarily anti-Israel group said it shifted its to target the Egyptian military and security forces following Morsi’s ouster and the subsequent “massacre of Muslims in Egypt.”

[8] A few days following his release from prison on August 24, former MP Mohamed El-Omda announced a reconciliation initiative. Although it carries little or no political weight his differs from previous similar individual initiatives because of El-Omda’s close ties to the Brotherhood. He was arrested with the group’s leaders in July 2013.

[9] According to WikiThawra, 41,163 people have been prosecuted since Morsi’s ouster. See https://wikithawra.wordpress.com/author/wikithawra/

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