The situation in Egypt is going from bad to worse. Islamist leaders are being arrested as former despot Hosni Mubarak has been released from prison and put under house arrest. Attempts to shut down protests have resulted in the worst bloodbaths in the country’s modern history.
Not surprisingly, attempts to negotiate a settlement to the country’s turmoil have broken down, and both sides appear to be digging in, searching for ways to blame the other for the stalemate and to write a new national narrative.
While the military’s removal of a democratically elected government should always be challenged, there was hope that the situation in Egypt would stabilize after the army toppled President Mohammed Morsi. Mr. Morsi had governed with increasing disregard for the views of the substantial minority of people who had opposed him. In the 2012 presidential election, 48.3 percent of the voting public voted for other candidates than Mr. Morsi. A combination of administrative incompetence and authoritarian democracy had alienated many of his supporters and brought millions of people into the streets to protest his rule.
Sensing that it had majority support, the military launched a coup, removing Mr. Morsi and installing a civilian-led administration that would write a new constitution and oversee a transition to a new government.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters have not accepted this fait accompli. They took to the streets and set up tent camps from which they launched mass protests against the military’s usurpation of power. Behind the scenes, however, there were negotiations between the Islamist leadership and the new government to see if they could work out a compromise that would provide some symbolic role for Mr. Morsi while effectively lifting his hand from the day to day operations of the government. The Islamists were said to be ready to accept a deal that would begin with the release of Muslim leaders who had been arrested after the coup. But the military balked.
Instead, the army cracked down on the demonstrators, intervening with force to disperse them from their camp sites. As many as 1,000 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in the last week following a crackdown on supporters of the former president.
Both sides have blamed the other for the violence. The protesters say the military used indiscriminate violence against peaceful demonstrators. The military insists that there were snipers and other armed individuals who used the protesters as shields. Reports from hospitals show many victims had been shot in the head.
Last week, insult was added to injury with the release of Mr. Mubarak, the man whose overthrow in early 2011 signaled the high water mark of the Arab Spring. After being removed by mass protests, the former president was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for failing to prevent the killing of protestors, a ruling he is appealing. In a separate case, a court found that he could not be held in connection with corruption charges, eliminating the legal basis for his detention.
While Mr. Mubarak’s political life is over, the decision still looks like a deliberate statement to Egyptians and the world that the old order is reasserting itself and that change has very definite limits.
At this point, both sides in this crisis seem more intent on digging in their heels and trying to write a narrative that identifies the other side as the villain than finding a peaceful solution that restores order to the country and responds to the other side’s concerns. Martyrs are more valuable than moderation.
Outsiders can’t do much to influence this dynamic. Historically the United States has been an important interlocutor with Cairo, providing billions of dollars of military aid. But Washington is worried that it has limited leverage in the current situation.
European Union foreign ministers face a similar situation, but they have even less leverage in Cairo. Moreover, any threats to cut support are neatly neutralized by Saudi Arabia’s pledge to make up for any shortfall. The Riyadh government is staunchly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and will do what it can to ensure that it makes no inroads into the region.
The deteriorating situation in Egypt is alarming. But even more troubling are the signals that are being sent throughout the region. Autocrats in the region have been reassured that might does equal right. Political institutions are of secondary concern; the rule of law is a flexible concept. More important is the force of arms.
It is a message that echoed in Algiers two decades ago and is heard in Damascus today. It is the wrong message to send to millions of Arabs who will now believe that democracy is not for them. Democratic processes must be protected, laws and constitutions respected.
Outside forces have little direct role to play, but the leaders of countries in the region must be told in unmistakable terms that they cannot rule by fiat. All governments must enjoy democratic legitimacy in form and substance. Authoritarians of whatever stripe will not be tolerated or blindly accepted.