Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

On reconciliation

Contrary to what some have argued, there may be no real urgency behind moves towards national reconciliation, writes Ahmed El-Tonsi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many commentators and policy-makers inside and outside Egypt have been calling upon the various political forces across the political landscape to pursue a process of national reconciliation. For such commentators, this has become increasingly perceived as a panacea against the rising violence sustained by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, and as has been the case in many other societies that have embarked on various forms of reconciliation some of the political forces and even many among the populace as a whole have raised concerns about the proposed national reconciliation and its appropriateness as a political remedy to the status quo.

According to US commentator Elizabeth A. Cole, “reconciliation has also acquired negative overtones from specific historical contexts when reconciliation with some groups was promoted at the expense of others.” As a result, politicians advocating reconciliation should bear in mind that those questioning its relevance to the status quo in Egypt have their reasons and their right to think differently about the issue.

It should be mentioned that national reconciliation as a concept and as a practice has sometimes posed more questions than it answers. First among these is what is meant by reconciliation. On a theoretical level, there has been no agreement on a standard definition that would demystify the concept and its uses. Instead, there has been confusion among scholars concerning an appropriate definition.

Even so, lately there has been a growing trend among thinkers to envisage reconciliation as a multidimensional, long-term and adaptive process aiming at rebuilding or changing relationships that have precipitated violent conflicts. The call for national reconciliation proposed by some commentators, activists and politicians within the transitional government has been accompanied by a need for elaboration about how they define such reconciliation, first as a concept and second as a process having certain predictable outcomes.

Moreover, the enthusiasm for starting a national reconciliation process, as expressed by some policy-makers, requires further clarification that might justify their urgency in pursuing such reconciliation. If not, this urgency could be interpreted as a needlessly apologetic stance reflecting a half-hearted enthusiasm for the 30 June Revolution and its decisions. It could also be seen as a response to the blackmail of the Muslim Brotherhood or of Western circles demanding the re-inclusion of the Islamists within the political order.

Such enthusiasm needs to be challenged through a series of questions. Why this reconciliation is the first of these, this pertaining to identifying the reasons that mandate national reconciliation. Other questions include what national reconciliation means for Egypt, whom or what we are trying to reconcile, and shouldn’t we be trying to reconcile ourselves with the new reality in Egypt first. 

National reconciliation has come to the forefront of the political scene in societies that are starting a process of rebuilding or even establishing broad social relationships between communities that have been alienated by sustained, widespread or intractable violence. Accordingly, the process has been put into effect in many countries that have passed through transitional phases, particularly when these have been associated with historical or communal conflict and violence, such as in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid regime, Latin America as a result of its brutal military dictatorships, Eastern Europe after the fall of the Communist regimes, and in Sub-Saharan Africa with its tribal wars.

Put differently, the need for national reconciliation has in most cases surfaced in countries with deeply seated if not protracted and profound ethnic, religious, tribal  or ideological divisions. In Egypt, the context of the current conflict has been different from that of a post-conflict and still sharply divided society recovering from a civil war or brutally oppressive regime. Violence has not been uncommon among the Islamists, and it has taken the form of waves of actions and reactions from two contending forces in the country: the Egyptian state and the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Yet, the Islamists cannot be considered to be an isolated community or even a unified political group. In other words, the nature and the causes of the conflict in Egypt have been quite different from those seen in other instances of deeply entrenched communal conflicts. The ongoing confrontations between the Brotherhood on the one side and the state and growing societal sectors on the other should not be considered as communal conflict or civil war, and these confrontations will in any case gradually subside rather than escalate into fully-fledged communal violence. Instead, this is cyclic violence that requires society to be steadfast in the face of it.

Some may claim that the amplitude of the ongoing violence has been too high and that there should be some form of compromise. However, it should be stressed that nearly the whole of society has been aware of the dangers of the Brotherhood, and those advocating reconciliation with it need to be transparent about the exact reasons behind such a call. Such transparency, in terms of laying down a comprehensive plan for reconciliation as a process and as an outcome with specific time-framed milestones is a pre-requisite for the kind of broader popular acceptance that is essential for a successful bottom-up reconciliation process.

Top-down reconciliation has its own importance. But as commentators Bar-Tal and Bennink have stressed, “it is important to recognise that although the reconciliation process may begin either with the leaders or the grassroots, to be effective it must always proceed top-down and bottom-up simultaneously.” The current widespread popular rejection of the Brotherhood needs more than just an elitist compromise.

The second question pertains to who the victims of such conflict are. In the previously mentioned communal conflicts there was a sort of historical injustice against a collective that had been traumatised by another offending collective. As a result, in many of these tragic conflicts there was a triad of victims, beneficiaries, and perpetrators or offenders. Who has been the victim in the ongoing events in Egypt? Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood has excelled in performing the victim’s role, while at the same time denying any accountability for its violent acts that have led to the state’s forceful responses against it and its members.

Denial and/or self-deception have been tools used by the group throughout its history. The attempt on the life of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954, for example, was denied by different generations of the Brotherhood, who described it as a conspiracy devised by the regime to crack down on the group. The same could be said about the 1965 plot against the state that was categorically denied by the group, which blamed the Nasser regime for what it called its “second predicament”.  A different historiography of Egypt, if not of the whole of mankind, is endorsed by the group and its cadres in a cultural legacy that has no place for self-revision, let alone for forgetting or forgiving, which are essential to any reconciliation process.

In the ongoing conflict can we consider the Brotherhood to be a victim? Throughout the whole period of the sit-ins, the group was avidly pushing for a confrontation with the state with tragic consequences. Those who have died since 30 June have been the victims of the group’s leadership and its manipulation of religious sentiments that have mobilised hundreds of innocent people to serve as new actors in its long history of alleged victimisation. However, this time the group has been the de facto if not de jure perpetrator or offender, amassing its own victims among those attending the sit-ins, scared by the group and its power mania.

When to start the reconciliation process is also of extreme importance. Most scholars have emphasised that reconciliation should start in the aftermath of the cessation of violence. But clearly the Brotherhood has had no intention of ending its direct or indirect violence. In fact, it has been escalating the violent events in an attempt to blackmail the state. Moreover, this escalation has served the group’s objective of maximising the political instability in the country in order to export to the outside world scenes of mutual violence that may expose, if the group has its way, the revolutionary regime.

Evidently, the Brotherhood will not stop its terrorism as it has a vested interest in its continuation and escalation. The ongoing anti-terrorist efforts carried out by the state have disrupted many of the command and control structures, as well as financial networks, within the group. Yet, some cells inside the group may work autonomously, paving the way to the evolution of offshoot structures that in many cases are more radical than the parent association. This development may become inevitable if the group as a whole decides to accept any form of compromise.

The same could be said about the affiliates of the Brotherhood, which have reluctantly become its partners while always having had ideological reservations about the Muslim Brotherhood and its orientation and paradigms. Raised expectations coupled with unleashed energies have been the outcome of the catastrophic and short-lived experience of the group’s few months in power. In essence, what we see today is a highly divided political trend that has been fragmented by offshoots of varying sizes and orientations, each claiming orthodoxy while in the vast majority of cases aiming to discredit the others.

What to reconcile has apparently meant the re-inclusion of the Brotherhood and its affiliates within the formal body politic, thus avoiding its political exclusion as was the case before the 25 January Revolution. In fact, the steps to integrate the group within the legal political framework started when the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) approved the group’s formation of its own political party. This approval was a crucial step in the group’s history, since it was something that had been denied it for most of its history.

No less important was the group’s approval of many past constitutional documents and the fact that Egypt and most other countries have long banned the formation of political parties on a religious basis. The SCAF’s decision to overturn this ban should be considered as a form of reconciliation that the regime deliberately pursued. Within the same context, the release of prisoners belonging to the Brotherhood and the amnesties offered by the SCAF to many of its leaders were also positive steps in the direction of national reconciliation.

Yet, in return the Brotherhood took advantage of these steps towards reconciliation by resorting to violence, whether direct or outsourced through its allies across Egypt including in Sinai. Some commentators have warned against a shift in the group towards its becoming a clandestine terrorist organisation if it is denied the right to be included in the political process. But on the other hand it should be said that the group has never relinquished its clandestine modus operandi even when it has been in power.

The reconciliation process in Egypt is less urgent than some might think. Democratisation should not always be linked to reconciliation. The case of Spain can be illuminating here, where US commentator Omar G Encarnacion, commenting on the Spanish experience after the death of the former dictator Francisco Franco, has said that “it is in fact possible for democratisation to proceed without reconciliation.”

In Egypt, the transitional regime should focus on Egypt’s priorities, not the Brotherhood’s plan or agenda which the latter has used in its attempt to overcome the new realities after the June 2013 Revolution. At the same time, the new constitution should address the urgent issue of the relationship between religious parties and groups on the one hand and politics and society on the other.  

 

The writer is a political analyst.

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