Q & A: Can civil society save Egypt?

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi lies in the debris left outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque in Nasr City on August 15, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.</p>

A poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi lies in the debris left outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque in Nasr City on August 15, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.

Egypt's experiment with democracy appears to have ended almost before it had begun.

With thousands dead, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in jail, the military securely in power, and Mubarak seemingly on the road to freedom, Egypt's apparent backslide into authoritarianism has been breathtakingly swift.

Western commenters have mostly been critical of the Egyptian military's crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, while those who organized the late July demonstrations against Mohamed Morsi — the so called Tamarod movement — seem for now to have sided with the generals.

To understand which players are most likely to play a role in charting Egypt's next path, GlobalPost talked to Egypt expert Mohamed El Dahshan (MD) and visiting professor of law at the American University of Cairo Mina Khalil (MK).

The Muslim Brotherhood is a major pillar of Egyptian society, providing social services and other support to a large segment of the population. Has the recent crackdown worked to strengthen the organization's image? Do you see the MB being pushed back underground?

MD: The polarization in Egypt right now is such that even the violence [in Rabaa square] is unlikely to sway people one way or the other. It will however confirm everyone's preconceptions: Muslim Brotherhood supporters will further be convinced the government is out to murder them, and the pro-army [supporters] will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence.

Pushing the Muslim Brotherhood underground is a definite possibility and a frightening one: their supporters will be convinced not only that the heathen government hates Islamic rule (however you define that), but also there is now a new batch of supporters who have experienced street combat.

Ultimately though, this will be a political decision on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership; the current government and the army have the responsibility to nudge them in the right direction, by offering incentives rather than threats.

Are there other civil society organizations that are helping to affect the course of Egyptian politics, particularly secular organizations beyond the military? If so, what are their priorities?

MK: The other actors most capable of affecting Egypt’s future suffer from lack of prioritization, and subsequently a lack of leadership.

They have approached Egypt’s democratic transition in an almost lopsided manner — largely out of necessity. Human rights lawyers and human rights groups including the Hisham Mubarak Law Center have strenuously dealt with attacks on persons, places, and campaigns by Egypt’s interim rulers, eventually losing sight of achieving an overarching vision to unify all Egyptians, notwithstanding revolutionary rhetoric. When these young, vibrant yet exhausted activists and lawyers actively pursued a campaign against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, they succeeded within days, which goes to show that they are still widely capable of mass mobilization well after January 25.

The major problems arise, however, when they have to translate this mass mobilization into concrete political and legal reforms through a democratic process largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled by the military. While resources continue to be scarce, perhaps the main cause of this breakdown seems to be a lack of an articulated vision by Egypt’s revolutionary leaders — both rhetorically and constitutionally — to which Egypt’s youth and masses can coherently and passionately attach themselves.

Without such an articulated vision, leadership of Egypt’s democratic transition will continue to be divided, antagonistic, and interrupted.

Does the recent crackdown risk pushing the country toward a civil conflict or a violent insurgency?

MD: A civil war is not on the table. Violence in the sense of political assassinations, car bombs, etc. is something we ought to prepare for. The difference between the two is a matter of size of the committed population. While a civil war suggests a large number of, well, soldiers, assassinations are the act of a small fringe group.

What is the role of the Coptic church at this point? Are they empowered by the recent military ouster of the Brotherhood, or are they worried about the consequences and backlash?

MD: We already have the answer to that, in the form of perhaps two dozen churches attacked, ransacked, burned in the most cowardly fashion. The church is at most drawing its position from Al-Azhar. It will not get any closer to the army without its friendly Muslim sister organisation.