A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 19, 2013

Some Lingering Questions About Egypt

I think there are many lingering questions surrounding last week's events in Egypt, but among them are these:

1. Egypt's military deposed Muhammad Morsi on July 3. The crackdown to disperse the pro-Morsi demonstrators took place last Wednesday, six weeks later. The military leadership had warned the dispersal was coming, but had delayed it several times. Why did the military move when it did, when little had changed? Especially when the US was clearly urging its clients in the Egyptian military not to move? There are hints that while the US and Europe were urging caution, others in the region were not. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, for example, have openly supported the crackdown, if deploring the deaths. And this New York Times article mentions (almost in passing) that General Sisi has good ties with the Israelis since his days running military intelligence, and that Israel reassured him he should move. Israel and the Gulf States (except Qatar) have their own reasons for wanting to see the Brotherhood suppressed, and this may be a case of some key US allies urging another key US ally to make a move that the US opposes. If so, this may be another example of the decline of US influence in the region, even among its friends.

2. Could the bloodshed have been avoided or reduced? This is tricky; many on the pro-Morsi side did clearly arm themselves and fight back despite offers of a safe exit, seeking martyrdom; the attacks on churches and police stations voids their claim to have been merely peaceful protestors. But I remain struck by the contrast between the numbers killed since last Wednesday and those killed in the government's long war against Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya in 1992-1997. While I have not found exact numbers who died in that "war," it seems to have been in the hundreds on each side. In one of the better known cases, the so-called "Siege of Imbaba," when part of the Cairo district of Imbaba known as al-Munira al-Gharbiyya had made itself virtually self-governing and was called "the Islamic Emirate of Imbaba, the government, beginning on December 8, 1992, surrounded the quarter with between 12,000 and 18,000 troops and gradually reduced it over several months. Thousands were arrested and there were widespread reports of torture, but the death toll was apparently much lower than last week.

It's true the parallels are inexact. Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya was smaller than the Brotherhood, and after a year in power, the Brotherhood supporters were able to arm themselves for resistance far better than the Gama‘a. And Imbaba was not located in such central locations as the Morsi demonstrations, and could be more readily sealed off. The high casualties however, create a new set of  "martyrs."

The government may not have sought such carnage; there is the old saw that one should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence, and many victims were indeed provocateurs. But the high casualties make it even harder to avoid a civil conflict that could be much bloodier than that in the 1990s.

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