US caught in dilemma over Egypt

Updated: 2013-09-03 07:25

By He Wenping (China Daily)

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On Sunday, ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was reported to face trial in a criminal court for "incitement to murder", but the interim government did not give a specific date for the trial. The move may escalate the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

Since the ouster of Morsi, violence has rocked Cairo and other major Egyptian cities. Continuing clashes between Morsi's supporters, on the one hand, and his opponents and security forces, on the other, have left hundreds of people dead.

To seek a peaceful end to the Egyptian crisis and avert further violence, the United States, the European Union and other countries and organizations recently organized a weeklong international mediation, which unfortunately failed to yield any result. The interim government in Egypt has announced the failure of diplomatic attempts to iron out the differences between the authorities and the outraged Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's party.

With international mediators leaving Egypt in disappointment, the country is inching dangerously toward a civil war. The Egyptian interim government has blamed the Brotherhood for the failure of the mediation efforts and urged pro-Morsi protestors to leave the streets and squares and return home, warning that the government's patience was running out. But Morsi's supporters have vowed to defy the interim government and its security forces.

Bloody clashes erupted when Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse two pro-Morsi protestors' camps from Cairo's streets. Although the crackdown on Morsi's supporters was opposed and/or criticized by a majority of countries, the Egyptian interim government and the military seem determined to subdue the Brotherhood at all costs.

The interim government has declared a state of emergency across Egypt for a month. Police have detained Mohamed Badie, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, while jailed former president Hosni Mubarak was released on Aug 22. The coincidental "arrest" and "release" suggest a "shellacking" of Morsi's and the Brotherhood's political future, although it is too early to pass a judgment on the outcome of Mubarak's possible release.

By clearing squatting protestors, arresting high-level Brotherhood leaders and "releasing" Mubarak, the Egyptian authority's "combination blow" has, instead of subjugating the Brotherhood, caused further unrest in the divided country. With deepening secular and religious antagonism and sectarian divide, it has become more difficult for different Egyptian forces to embark on the road to reconciliation and democracy.

The military's crackdown on the Brotherhood and the court ruling to release Mubarak could prove "risky" as far as subduing Morsi's supporters is concerned. In the final analysis, it may not help the interim government consolidate its hold on the Egyptian people, because the Brotherhood with its support base and experience of carrying out underground activities will not take things lying down.

Despite suffering repeated blows since its establishment in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood survived to emerge as the most powerful "political" force after the ouster of Mubarak. The Brotherhood can also use Mubarak's release to accuse the military of launching a "coup" to "kill" democracy and restore authoritarian rule in Egypt.

Moreover, liberals who oppose the release of Mubarak and advocate a complete shift from the old regime could withdraw support to the interim government.

The crackdown on the Brotherhood can have two possible outcomes. The first is an internal division within the Brotherhood, prompting the moderate faction to accept a compromise, even conditionally, at the negotiation table. This is precisely what the interim government expects. The other result would be an increase in violence leading to heavy casualties, with the Brotherhood going underground but continuing its demands and launching attacks against the interim government. This will deteriorate the situation and make a political resolution to the conflict almost impossible and throw the entire Middle East into chaos.

Middle East countries are divided over how to deal with the Egyptian crisis. Tunisia and Turkey support the Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates support the Egyptian military.

Amid all this, the US has exhibited an ambiguous stance. It won't be wrong to say that Washington is in a dilemma over how to respond to the mess in Egypt because of the policy it pursues. Given its commitment to democracy, the US should support Morsi and oppose the military for overthrowing a democratically elected government.

But because of its interests in the Middle East and the fact that its regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, see the Brotherhood and other Islamic forces as a big security threat, the US has to adopt an ambiguous stance, giving the Egyptian military a tacit nod to use strong measures to quell domestic unrest as quickly as possible.

The author is a senior fellow at the Chahar Institute and a research scholar at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 09/03/2013 page9)