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Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition
Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Overview

Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition

Nearly two-and-half years after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt is embarking on a transition in many ways disturbingly like the one it just experienced, only with different actors at the helm and far more fraught and violent.

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I. Overview

Nearly two-and-half years after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt is embarking on a transition in many ways disturbingly like the one it just experienced – only with different actors at the helm and far more fraught and violent. Polarisation between supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohamed Morsi is such that one can only fear more bloodshed; the military appears convinced it has a mandate to suppress demonstrators; the Muslim Brotherhood, aggrieved by what it sees as the unlawful overturn of its democratic mandate, seems persuaded it can recover by holding firm. A priority is to lower flames by releasing political prisoners – beginning with Morsi; respect speech and assembly rights; independently investigate killings; and for, all sides, avoid violence and provocation. This could pave the way for what has been missing since 2011: negotiating basic rules first, not rushing through divisive transition plans. An inclusive reconciliation process – notably of the Brotherhood and other Islamists – needs more than lip-service. It is a necessity for which the international community should press.

There are many reasons for the current crisis: the Morsi administration’s dismissive attitude toward its critics; its inability to mobilise the machinery of state to address basic concerns of an impatient citizenry; the opposition’s reliance on extra-institutional means to reverse unfavourable electoral outcomes; state institutions’ disruptive foray into partisan politics; and collective resort to street action to resolve differences. All these served as backdrop to the 30 June popular uprising and Morsi’s overthrow by the military three days later and have left prospects for a successful democratic transition far dimmer than in February 2011. Social and ideological divisions are more pronounced, violence more normalised, a seemingly revanchist security apparatus more emboldened and a winner-takes-all approach more alluring than ever. And all this takes place in a deteriorating fiscal, social and economic environment.

Duelling legitimacies were on display on 30 June. The first was based on popular outcry against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed as incompetent, arrogant, domineering and increasingly out of touch. The second was rooted in the ballot box. Both have been superseded in effect by the legitimacy the military bestowed upon itself as ultimate arbiter of politics. In so doing, the armed forces unquestionably are relying on deep popular backing among Brotherhood opponents. But this hardly is a stable formula. Their support base consists of an eclectic and awkward alliance of liberals, leftists, businessmen, Mubarak-era conservatives and members of the establishment. The contradictions will be evident before long; some already have surfaced. Many Brotherhood critics remain ambivalent about the role of the army, which simultaneously has turned a sizeable portion of the Islamist camp into its foe. In short, and unlike 2011 when it could paint itself as above the fray, the military has sided with one camp against another.

The fate of the Muslim Brotherhood is at the centre of the equation. Reeling from its dramatic loss of power and persecuted in ways unseen since the 1960s, it is reviving its traditional narratives of victimhood and injustice. It is depicting the struggle as a battle between defenders and opponents of both democracy and Islam. It is closing ranks, banking on a war of attrition to expose the new rulers over time as a more repressive version of Mubarak’s old regime; exacerbate divisions among their current backers; and discredit them with domestic and international public opinion. In mirror image, the new authorities believe that, by preventing a return to normalcy, the Islamists will continue to lose popular support and – if they refuse to retreat – justify a more forceful crackdown.

Averting a more violent confrontation and finding a pathway back to a legitimate political process is a huge challenge, one that, by the nature of current dynamics, domestic actors are in no position to meet alone. The European Union (EU) has emerged as an important potential mediator, a fact that reflects the intense anti-Americanism that has enveloped both sides of the Egyptian divide. Others (including, behind the scenes, Washington) should work in unison. The goal, easier said than done, must be to propose a middle ground between the Islamists’ insistence that Morsi be reinstated and the constitution restored, and the resolve of the military and its allies that there will be no turning back. Some ideas have been floated, such as allowing Morsi to return with dignity in order to quickly resign, thereby transferring power to a different interim president or prime minister acceptable to all; and, through an inclusive process, establishing new institutional rules (to amend the constitution and organise new elections).

The current rulers, of course, are strongly tempted to press forward forcefully in order to establish facts on the ground: an effective government; economic progress thanks in part to massive Gulf Arab financial assistance; constitutional revisions; and elections. But this would come at a very steep price, as the bloody confrontations on 8 and 27 July readily attest.

Indeed, it is a price the army and the coalition that supports it should know well, for it is one Morsi and his allies just paid: by taking advantage of a favourable balance of power and rushing to create a new political order that essentially marginalised losers, they put the country’s stability at risk and hope of a return to normalcy out of reach. Only this time around, the cost of failure could well include political violence at a level not experienced by Egypt since the early 1990s.

Cairo/Brussels, 7 August 2013

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.