x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 February 2018

Polarisation reveals faultlines of Egypt’s two opposing sides

HA Hellyer asks: are there Egyptians leaders who are ready to take measures that will decrease the polarisation, before it leads to even more instability?

Some can argue that there is a benefit to social polarisation. In restive societies, polarisation provides the advantage of unity and cohesiveness within the sides that are polarised against each other. This is true in the Egyptian case as it is elsewhere. But polarisation only works for so long. Eventually, cracks begin to emerge. And there are signs of that taking place in Egypt, in each of the main camps. The question remains: when will both sides realise polarisation is a dead-end?

The role that Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi will play in the days and months ahead will be central for answering this question. It is probably a matter of days before he announces he will run for the presidency. The publicly declared reason for this decision is simple: he is not only popular, but that the “Egyptian people” apparently “demand” that he run. As such, his decision to run for the presidency is a recognition of his “public duty” – as a statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces indicated last week.

Egypt’s state institutions are currently unruly. They operate with a degree of autonomy, almost enshrined in the new constitution. Of course, being unruly with El Sisi in the presidency, given the amount of support different state institutions and media are giving him, would be a different story altogether. That, in part, explains the reasoning behind him running.

Part of the problem, however, is that even before Field Marshal El Sisi’s presidency, splits between state institutions are starting to show. Privately, the military establishment can count on the full support and backing of the judiciary, as well as the private and national media networks.

The ministry of interior, though, is causing many to grumble. Other state officials are signalling discontent with the way the ministry has been behaving in recent months. The reasons for the discomfort are unclear, but it is clear that the security apparatus is not on the same page as the military on a number of issues. Indeed, many maintain that the architect of the violent dispersal of the Rabaa pro-Morsi sit-in in August was not the military – which nonetheless authorised it – but the interior ministry.

Splits are showing elsewhere as well. Television presenter Lamis El Hadidi, well known for her virulent attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood and her unbridled support for the military, surprised viewers on Tuesday evening when she put the interior ministry on the spot for holding Al Jazeera journalists on terrorism-related charges. She asked officials how the case was changed from being about no licensing and a lack of proper accreditation to one relating to terrorism. Ms El-Hadidi would not have made such an accusation had she identified the ministry of the interior as a red line.

Such fault lines within the state may only intensify if Field Marshal El Sisi becomes a president. There are some indications that the issuing of light sentences to those currently detained, or even pardons, might weaken opposition to the state. Some have already pointed out that should this take place, particularly within the lower tiers of the Brotherhood youth, as well as non-Islamist activists, anti-state opposition could be reduced. But less opposition to the state could expose the fault-lines within the state even further.

The state is not alone in worrying about such fault lines. The pro-Morsi camp has its own divisions to consider. The Brotherhood leadership that remains extant and outside the country, while symbolically important, does not have full control over pro-Islamist dissent against the state. It is active in lobbying efforts outside of Egypt but, increasingly, the protests within Egypt are being led by organic networks of youth. They have been unsuccessfully looking for direction. The pro-Brotherhood “Anti-Coup Alliance” platform is supposed to provide that for them, but reports indicate that the alliance is failing to deliver visionary leadership or indeed any sort of direction. It may not be because they are not trying but because so many of those who could lead are in prison.

There are other fault lines to be considered with regards to the anti-state coalition, including the splitting of the coalition on account of new political developments, as well as impatience. The former could easily lead to some within the coalition leaving it to run in parliamentary elections – in this case, they would be leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the lurch, as they regard participation in such elections as a recognition of the military-backed roadmap.

Impatience at the lack of success of the Brotherhood’s protest strategies might also lead many to leave the Anti-Coup Alliance, and follow other directions. One such group has already been formed by younger Islamists, who deem the alliance as having been insufficiently robust in its positions against the government, and accusing it of being inclined to negotiate with the government. Others may leave the alliance and become members of militant groups such as Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis, leading to an increase in violent insurgent attacks.

Polarisation works for a time. It provides cohesion in times of stress and challenges, but it also makes it difficult to consider other routes of action. The polarisation in Egypt was not inevitable, and the cohesiveness it underpins is not sustainable in the long run. Eventually, cohesion will give way to splintering, and that could result in an even more unstable situation for Egyptians at large.

The question is: are there Egyptians leaders who are ready to take measures that will decrease the polarisation, before it leads to even more instability?

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer