Attacks on protesters in Cairo were calculated to provoke, some say

Attacks on protesters in Cairo were calculated to provoke, some say

Guards stand outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, which was destroyed during clashes between supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and security forces in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

Cairo:  The ferocity of the attacks by security forces on Islamist protesters in Cairo this week appears to have been a deliberate calculation of the military-appointed government to provoke violence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, a number of Arab and Western historians of Middle East politics said Friday.

The objective, they said in interviews, was to demonize the Islamists in the eyes of Egypt's broader populace, validate the July 3 ouster of the Islamist president and subvert any possibility that dialogue aimed at reintegrating the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt's mainstream politics would succeed.

While many said it seemed premature to call the violence in Egypt a precursor to civil war, they said the hatreds unleashed on all sides presaged a possible future of low-level insurgency by embittered, alienated Islamists. Some drew parallels to Algeria, where the military also intervened to subvert Islamist ascendance in democratic electoral politics more than two decades ago, leading to a horrific period of mayhem and repression.

"Given the propaganda of the state-supported media in Cairo, tarring the Muslim Brotherhood with the terrorist brush, making them enemies, not just a nuisance, is setting them up for being completely crushed and eliminated," said Hugh Roberts, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Tufts University and a historian on Algeria. "To use an Algerian term, eradication."

Many said the sequence of events since the forced removal of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, suggested that the Egyptian military had concluded beforehand that there was little or nothing to gain from negotiations with the Brotherhood, that they would rather deal with it as an insurgent group that presented a security threat and not as a popular movement.

Morsi's repeatedly extended detentions, complete isolation and possible prosecution for as-yet-unspecified charges underscored what some Egyptian experts called the unspoken intent of the interim government to delegitimize him.

None saw evidence that Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt's top military authority, and his subordinates in the Interior Ministry and the police had been moved by outside pressure by the United States, the European Union and others, to compromise with the Islamists, despite public lip service to the politics of inclusion and diverse points of view.

"Clearly for some segments of the security apparatus, there was an anxiety over the reinclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process," said Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "Precisely because these negotiations might have gotten somewhere, they wanted to stop the Muslim Brotherhood in its tracks. You could pick no better strategy than the heavy-handed manner in which they dealt with these protests."

The overwhelming use of force to purge the Islamist protest encampments in two Cairo squares Wednesday came despite pledges of restraint and open discussion about the use of more passive strategies like a blockade. More than 600 people were killed in those assaults, which became a catalyst for angry Islamist reprisals, many of them directed against the police and Egypt's Christian minority in the days since.

"The crackdown on the 14th was intended to provoke the Islamists to react violently, I'm fairly convinced of that," said Issandr el-Amrani, a journalist and political analyst who blogs as the Arabist, a widely followed website. "If you look at what happened since the July 3 coup, the international community wanted to see some kind of compromise arrangement, and I think the military in Egypt felt trapped by that, felt that it would have to make concessions."

Amrani, a Moroccan American who has lived in Egypt for years, said he believed there had been "an understanding between the military and the security services, whose entire history has been against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secularists, who saw this as a historic chance to put the Muslim Brotherhood out of business."

While the consequence might return Egypt to another era of repression similar to that of President Hosni Mubarak, he said, "they felt they could live with that - there would not be any sharing of power with the Islamists."

Many Islamists in Egypt have been making such accusations since Morsi was deposed, while the military-appointed government and its supporters have adamantly denied them. At the same time, the language of moderation, tolerance and restraint in Egypt, once heard during the more innocent days of the 2011 revolution, has faded.

"When everybody in Egypt talks about inclusive politics, they're lying," said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Cook and others attributed some responsibility for the events of this past week to Islamist leaders, saying violence appeared inevitable after protest leaders at the two Cairo encampments had exhorted followers to martyr themselves if attacked.

"It strikes me that kind of thinking made the military deeply uncomfortable," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has been saying, 'we're prepared for martyrdom.' I don't think you can get much clearer than that. Their asking the people to die for a cause."

Roberts noted that the comparisons between Egypt and Algeria were limited in many respects. In Algeria, the military intervened to nullify elections before the winning Islamist candidates could even take office, while in Egypt the Islamists won elections and their president served for a year.

In Algeria, the Islamist political organization was young and untested, while the Muslim Brotherhood has been part of Egyptian life for 85 years, much of it as an outlawed group, that has given it a depth of experience and organizational skill.

Partly for that reason, Roberts said, it was by no means clear that the Brotherhood would be crippled in the new period of uncertainty now confronting Egypt. Likewise, he said, Egypt's armed forces do not necessarily have the upper hand in the struggle despite their overwhelming advantage in weapons.

"A question here is, which of the two has bitten off more than they can chew," he said.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: August 17, 2013 11:43 IST

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