x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hunting Egypt's Brotherhood will only boost their fortunes

What Egypt's army and the Brotherhood do in the coming weeks will decide whether the current situation is a stepping stone to a better revolution or the beginning of a slow fall.

The surest way to get into an argument with an Egyptian these days is to use the word "coup".

For many Egyptians, what happened last month when the president was removed from power by the army was not a coup: it was either a legitimate expression of the public's will or it was something else that doesn't yet have a name.

In fact, it was something else. The removal of Mohammed Morsi may have looked like a coup but it was something slightly different: an opportunistic moment that the army seized. The people opened the door and the army walked straight through it. That does not, however, make what happened illegitimate. Post-revolutionary countries, by their very nature, defy easy descriptions. Political science is written after the event.

The truth is that no one knows where, when or how this postrevolutionary journey will end. Egyptians are without a roadmap.

The army was reacting to a genuine feeling among large numbers of Egyptians. The credibility of Mr Morsi was clearly at an end. Naturally, the fact the protesters were calling for something that the army was happy to do helped sway their decision - one cannot imagine the army stepping in to topple a democratically-elected secular-minded president, no matter how many millions of Brotherhood supporters take to the streets.

But that decision is now a long way in the past, even if it has only been less than a month. What is certain is that the way the Muslim Brotherhood and the army react over the coming days will define the path that Egypt takes. And at the moment, that path leads to a precipice.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are still camped out in east Cairo, where they have been for three weeks. As each day passes, the likelihood of their protests returning Mr Morsi to power fade; but equally, the possibility of long-running violence increases.

Egypt is very polarised and the Brotherhood, now on the back foot, fear for their future. The deaths of 65 people on Saturday have only added fuel to the fire.

The army must now offer the Brotherhood a way out. The language used by the army has been harsh - defence minister Abdul Fattah Al Sisi's talking of "violence and terrorism" ahead of last Friday's Brotherhood protest was not helpful - and only adds to the sense of polarisation.

What is needed is a gesture that separates those Brotherhood supporters who accept the decision to remove Mr Morsi from those who are willing to stay and fight to the bitter end. Only by bringing into the political process the remnants of the Brotherhood can the army ensure stability.

The tragedy of Egypt is that it is too big to be ruled by one party and too big to be ruled by many.

If the army attempts to simply wipe away the past year of Brotherhood support among Egyptians, it will fail and set Egypt up for years of conflicts. The Brotherhood have spent many years in opposition. If its sympathisers feel it has been treated badly, they could yet go back underground.

That would be a tragedy for Egypt and an unwelcome boost to the fortunes of the Brotherhood.

Public politics has been good for Egypt and bad for the Brotherhood: by offering them power, the Egyptian public was able to see clearly how bad their ideology was at delivering policy solutions. Pushing them underground will only allow them to reclaim the mantle of victimhood they are so used to wearing.

In power, the Brotherhood was too enthralled to its base and the more radical Islamists it courted. (That, indeed, watching Tunisia today, is a problem Islamists generally appear to have.)

But being out of power and underground would only empower the extremists. The moderates - those who are willing to make the necessary compromises that active politics requires - would find themselves sidelined and a harsher ideology would find itself in favour.

The surest way to undercut the Brotherhood's support among Egyptians is to let them into politics. Across the Arab world, no one has done more to destroy the support of the Muslim Brotherhood than its first member to hold presidential office. Mr Morsi's performance will have convinced many Egyptians to never let the Brotherhood near public office again. What the army must do is help make that a reality - let the Brotherhood contest elections again and let them lose openly. Only then will the mantle of victimhood be removed.

The other option of a continued crackdown is dangerous and none can know how it will end. At the moment, the army holds most of the cards and the liberals who supported the removal of Mr Morsi feel vindicated. Indeed it is precisely that polarisation that will prove so destructive for Egyptian society. Mr Morsi and his allies, when in power, acted as if they did not need to listen to anyone and could rule all of Egypt only in the narrow interests of their base.

Now, with the Brotherhood out of power, the army and its allies must avoid making the same mistake.

Egyptians, unfortunately, are getting used to having their revolution delayed. But without some form of acceptance of those who voted for the Brotherhood, there could be years of this back-and-forth politics, of endless polarisation and of a deep mistrust between political factions that never goes away.

Egypt doesn't need that. In the coming weeks, what the army and the Muslim Brotherhood do will decide whether this period is a stepping stone to a better revolution or the beginning of a slow fall into dark waters.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai