Backers, foes of ousted Egypt leader continue to battle in Cairo streets

Supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohamed Morsi battled in the streets of downtown Cairo on Tuesday, showing Egypt remained dangerously split six weeks after the army overthrew him in response to mass unrest against his rule.

As demonstrators hurled rocks at each other and police fired volleys of tear gas, an initiative by Al-Azhar, a top religious authority, to resolve the crisis appeared to inch forward.

The Nour Party, the second biggest Islamist group, forecast that Al-Azhar-backed talks in pursuit of a solution would happen very soon while Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood signaled it was ready to take part as long as they were on the right terms.

Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo's al-Nahda Square and around Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque are the immediate focus of the crisis. Morsi backers stood firm behind barricades on Tuesday as Egypt's interim leaders debated how to end their sit-in.

No police crackdown appeared imminent despite frequent warnings from the army-installed government that the protesters should pack up and leave peacefully.

But clashes broke out in central Cairo when a few thousand Morsi supporters marched to the Interior Ministry.

Pro-army residents and shopworkers taunted them, calling them terrorists and saying they were not welcome. They then threw stones at the marchers, getting showered back in return.

Some hurled bottles at the Morsi supporters from balconies. Police then fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Women and children marchers fled the scene in panic. The clashes spread to several streets and brought Cairo traffic to a standstill.

“There's no going forward with negotiations, the only way is back. Morsi must be reinstated,” said Karim Ahmed, a student in a blue hard-hat who waved a picture of Morsi as he flung rocks at a ministry building.

Morsi took office in June 2012 as Egypt's first freely elected leader following the overthrow of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising the previous year.

But he failed to get to grips with a deep economic malaise and worried many Egyptians with his apparent efforts to tighten Islamist rule of the most populous Arab nation despite its social diversity.

The army removed him amid huge demonstrations against his rule. Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders are now in detention.

Foreign mediators say the Brotherhood must accept that Morsi will not be restored. At the same time, the authorities must bring the Brotherhood back into the political process, they say.

Since Morsi was forced out, the army has installed a new administration led by Adli Mansour, a judge. In a shakeup with echoes of the past, he swore in at least 18 new provincial governors on Tuesday, half of them retired generals.

“It is Mubarak's days,” prominent blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote on his Twitter feed. “Down down with every Mubarak. Sisi is Mubarak,” he added, referring to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who deposed Morsi.

Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group, said it was a partial return to the status quo ante.

“This move would likely play into Islamist accusations that the new regime is an attempt at reviving the old one,” he said.


The Brotherhood suggested on Tuesday it would be willing to join a meeting called by Al-Azhar, whose initiative is the only known effort to end the crisis peacefully following the collapse of international mediation last week.

“If they stick to the rules we're asking for, yes,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said, adding that talks must be based on the “restoration of constitutional legitimacy”.

But the Brotherhood would oppose proposals made by Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb because he had supported the army's overthrow of Morsi, Haddad said. He said there had been contacts with other Al-Azhar officials.

Nour leader Younes Makhyoun said his party had been invited to the Al-Azhar talks and he expected the meeting to take place “very soon”.

“Currently the noble al-Azhar is trying to bring together for discussions those who have drawn up initiatives to agree, for example, on one initiative and vision, which we will use to pressure all the parties, so they accept it,” he told Reuters.

The effort, however, was being complicated by the friction between the Brotherhood and al-Azhar, he said.

The government has its own plan for elections beginning with a parliamentary vote in about five months. But for now it is wrestling with the difficult issue of how to tackle the protest camps.

Some officials wish to avoid a bloody showdown, which would damage the government's efforts to present itself as legitimate, while hardliners in the army and security forces fear they are losing face to the Brotherhood and want to move in.

More than 300 people have already died in political violence since Morsi's overthrow on July 3, including dozens of his supporters killed by security forces in two separate incidents.

The state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported that after a National Security Council meeting on Monday night, security forces were likely to cordon off the camps rather than take a more forceful approach that could lead to bloodshed.

A senior security source told al-Ahram that security had been bolstered around the camps to prevent weapons getting in.

Senior Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail said he did not expect the Interior Ministry to break up the encampments by force because of the likely casualty toll.

“It would be a big crime in addition to the crimes already committed, because it will result in a great cost in terms of massacres and dead,” he said. “There are very large numbers, complete families, men, wives, children.”

Also on Tuesday, a court set September 7 as the start of another case brought against Morsi's allies, including prominent politician Mohamed el-Beltagi, on charges of kidnapping and torturing two members of the security forces.

Writing by Angus MacSwan in Cairo; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Democracy for Egypt? Come back in 20 years…

Let's try to make this simple:

For both the United States and Israel, the most convenient situation amid the inconvenience that is current Egypt is for the military to be in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, as well. Alas, however, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less possible it is for the United States to maintain such a cynical position (Israel doesn’t need to talk about such things, and, surprisingly, was able thus far to keep its mouth shut). In other words — but still keeping it simple: Policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure such pretense doesn’t end up hurting the military. Thus, on July 8, the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for restoration of democratic rule. 

Now the longer version: 

Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt, they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country — but they don’t believe any of that is feasible at this time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to attempt to gradually pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, to give it back to the “people” — contingent on the “people” being a transformed “people,” meaning more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to send one another flying off roof-tops or using guns to make a political point. 

In Egypt, illiteracy is rampant, unemployment is pervasive, and the majority of its populace holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the “camps” — supposedly traditional and more liberal — competing for dominance, would also be useful to look at the numbers of which each camp consists. Dividing Egypt into two camps — those believing democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and those who don’t — gives some reason for hope: 59 percent of Egyptians favor democracy, and only 38 percent don’t. 

But what if you make a slightly different division — this time dividing the two camps between those supporting and those opposing the stoning of adulterous women? That division offers a different, far less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82 percent favor stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into camps of those believing that “a wife must always obey her husband” and those who think otherwise? According to a 2013 Pew report, this division finds 85 percent of Egyptians agreeing that she should always obey. So, yes, there are two camps, but on many issues one of them is quite tiny compared to the other, and relying on that to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation can prove risky. 

Given such a starting point, there is little wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt was quickly proven to be nothing more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don’t really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi — albeit a democratically elected president of Egypt who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington’s only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities and relatively stable (it is also Israel’s only hope for an Egypt that isn’t a constant headache, security wise). The one problem that the military poses for the United States and President Barack Obama — how to save face on the issue of democracy — is hardly comparable to the plethora of problems posted by any other scenario. 

“I’ll be blunt: This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said when asked if what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: It isn’t the question that’s complicated, but rather the “situation.” That is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. Of course, Carney knows that a week of chaos in Egypt that began with a relatively unified response from the United States was coming to an end a couple of days ago, with more pundits and leaders beginning to wonder aloud about the hypocritical policy of the Obama administration. 

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid [to Egypt] until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared. 

“We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does, in fact, schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on July 8. Robert Kagan, writing for The Washington Post, argued that the United States failed the “very difficult test” of having to live with an Egyptian democracy headed by Morsi. “But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan is, of course, right: There is no “starting over” in the new situation — a situation that is becoming bloodier by the day, and that, at the time I am writing (Tuesday afternoon), seems quite scary. He is probably wrong, however, if he truly believes that “starting over” is the end game of the Obama administration, when in fact the true goal is twofold: Preventing chaos and saving face — in that order. 

Whether the Egyptian military can provide such an end result — keeping Egypt orderly while putting on some kind of show that will enable the world to pretend democracy is coming soon to Egypt — is a question that will likely remain unanswered in the coming days or weeks. This is a continual nuisance of the so-called Arab Spring (and, I’m afraid, also a recurring, and possibly annoying, theme of this column): Even as events rapidly unfold, they reveal little of the likely outcome of each new situation. 

Egypt was revolutionized unexpectedly, and then was taken democratically by the Muslim Brotherhood, then it erupted again, and now it is in danger of deteriorating into civil war. Thus, it presents Washington with a familiar question: Whether to support the principle of democracy in the hope that a long-term and very painful process would eventually lead to that end result. Or, rather, maybe it is better to forfeit long-term ambitions and dreams in an attempt to make the short term as painless as possible.

For Israeli administrations, the short term has always been the choice. Having to live with a possible chaos closer to home, they tend to postpone dreams in exchange for stability and calm. And, yes, they might also be less caring about whether the Arabs — often a hating enemy — get their dose of freedoms. For the more idealistic Americans, this has never been an easy question, but in Egypt — where stakes are very high and realistic expectations are currently quite low — the answer has already been given. 

What’s next for Egypt then? Putting one’s chips on a truly democratic start-over would be a risky gamble.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at