Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The threat of political violence

The escalation of political violence in Egypt is taking the country into dangerous and uncharted waters, writes Khaled Fayyad

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since last week, acts of random violence by young people have erupted on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in central Cairo on the eve of the first anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud killings that took place last year. These random acts of violence have included the burning down of the headquarters of the Al-Jazeera news channel, a key platform in the coverage of the 25 January Revolution. They have also included attacks on public buildings on Mohamed Mahmoud and Youssef Al-Guindi streets.
In the early evening of 22 November circumstances began to change on the ground. President Mohamed Morsi made a new constitutional declaration and took several key decisions that he felt would protect the gains and goals of the Revolution from the tampering of some, especially judges who some believe are part of the former Mubarak regime. The move enraged some forces viewed as revolutionary, as well as others seen as part of the former regime and several state institutions such as the judiciary.
Each side has its own reasons for protest. The civil forces believe that the declaration cements despotic rule, while associates of the former regime feel that it reopens an issue they thought was behind them, namely the question of retrials on charges relating to last year’s revolution. The judiciary views the declaration as undermining its status after its perceived victory in forcing the presidency to retract the decision to appoint the prosecutor-general ambassador to the Vatican. Along with these different outlooks, the means of expressing protest has also differed.
Some have called for civil disobedience, while others have proposed peaceful demonstrations, and still others have suggested a strike by the judiciary. Among these different groups a fourth party has emerged that has decided to use violence in managing the political conflict with the state. This group believes that events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in the three days preceding the constitutional declaration are a model of how it should react. There was a spike in attacks on the ministry of interior building, as well as attempts to storm the Shura Council where the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution was meeting. Some buildings were set on fire, such as the French Lycée, one of Egypt’s oldest schools.
Some organised groups in several governorates also began to attack the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Some of these assaults were apparently triggered by the call of some revolutionaries to burn down the Brotherhood headquarters in a similar way to what happened during the revolution itself when revolutionaries burned down the offices of the former ruling National Democratic Party. Some even justified the violence by saying that just as the president’s constitutional declaration was an exception, so was the violence.
Violent assaults started to target political figures on both sides. Former MP Abul-Ela Al-Hariri was attacked by assailants described as Brotherhood members in Alexandria, and lawyer Hamdi Al-Fakharani was assaulted in Mahalla. On the other side, Brotherhood journalist Kotb Al-Arabi was beaten in Tahrir Square by opponents of the constitutional declaration, as was Hassan Al-Brense, a leading figure in the FJP and deputy governor of Alexandria.
The cycle of violence continues, and people are resorting to the basest weapon of opposition, violence, which was never used during the revolution itself except in reaction on the Friday of Rage and during the Battle of the Camel. In a clear response by the Brotherhood cautioning against such escalation, the FJP in Alexandria, whose offices were the first to be torched, issued a statement declaring that the attack had occurred when no one was in the office because members were at a rally outside the presidential palace in Cairo supporting the president’s declaration.
The FJP said it was capable of “responding in the same way many times over,” but that it would not do so. At the same time, the party said it would not allow such events to happen again.
The Brotherhood has finally realised the trap it is in danger of walking into. It is being provoked to become violent and to stoke the chaos, forcing the army to intervene and end the deep social divisions and take over power. This is what some people want because they believe the hell of military rule is better than the heaven of the Brotherhood.
Egypt today is at a crossroads, and the country can either follow the path to creating a democracy based on institutions by writing a new constitution and electing a powerful parliament, or it can wait until the masses calm down and each party begins to find an exit that can take us back to square one.
It seems that the peaceful struggle between competing players is now declining as the violence rises, something we are witnessing today. No one will benefit from this, especially as the borders of the country are open to weapons-smugglers who have succeeded in smuggling a large arsenal of weapons into Egypt. Armed parties in the political arena appear close to direct confrontation that could threaten the future of the Egyptian state and take us down the same road as what has happened in Libya.
Although most examples of democratic change worldwide have seen political conflicts, and sometimes conspiracies and harsh and destructive criticism, these things have usually been part of a peaceful process to manage conflict during the transition to democracy. Most political sociologists view these things as part of the political eruption that countries go through when they undertake a popular revolution. The conflict can be even more heated if no particular political force leads the revolution, with political positions being the outcome of personal interpretations and individual outlooks that often lack political experience and statesmanship.
The threat to democratic transformation comes when this peaceful political struggle turns into a violent one in which various political forces brandish actual weapons as is expected in Egypt today and has been the case in Libya since the start of the revolution against the former Gaddafi regime. The danger of this type of struggle is that it relies on force in the physical sense, and the balance of power among the political players no longer depends on support from the masses but instead depends on their literal firepower and who can spill the most blood in the opponent’s ranks.
This is the fundamental threat to any people’s revolution since no one side can win outright. This could compel the only organised institution in the state that by law and the constitution has the means to do so to intervene and end the struggle for the sake of the survival of the state, which, in Egypt’s case, is the military. It seems to me that some political forces in Egypt want this to happen, as can be gleaned by statements encouraging the country to descend into a cycle of violence and counter-violence. In this way, the military would find itself forced to intervene to maintain law and order and return us to square one where there is no elected president, no legislative and not even any judicial power.
I believe that those who have most influence over the streets will try their utmost to stop this from happening by trying to de-escalate clashes with elements associated with the revolution. The initiatives and understandings that are now beginning to emerge are an attempt to end the cycle of violence, which only benefits those waiting to sabotage the homeland and who do not want Egypt to regain its former might among the Arab countries.

The writer is an expert at the Bahrain Institute for Political Development.

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