The Egypt Riots Look Bad — But They've Got More Support Than You Think


Last week my Egyptian friend asked me a question: “Why is the Western media so biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood?” He was referring to the media coverage of the military crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt that led to more than 900 deaths and thousands of arrests. As a staunchly secular Turk, his question didn’t surprise me at all. Still, I inquired: “How so?”

The response was most powerful: “Egyptians basically unanimously support the military crackdown. The Islamist protesters are really fringe, but the Western media makes it out to be a mass movement of ‘peaceful protesters.’ It’s not a peaceful sit in when a good portion of the people participating are armed. Even the Israelis are supporting us! It’s almost like the West deliberately wants Egyptians to hate them.”

His words couldn’t illustrate the deep polarization in Egypt any better. Although this may not be the view of all Egyptians, it is, indeed, a view of many, a view both intense and intensely rejected. As more and more Muslim Brotherhood supporters voice their outrage at the massacre, a widespread portion of Egyptians support the military crackdown, blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence since the coup. With this, a lens has resurfaced to guide our interpretation of the events in Egypt from the election of President Morsi to the crackdowns: a societal identity crisis.

Under an authoritarian regime, for decades those in power defined Egypt’s identity. But with the ouster of Mubarak, Egyptians finally obtained the power to define themselves. This, however, proved much more complex than anticipated.

As the Syrian war continues to spread strong sectarian and ethnic competition in the region, the role of “nationalism” in regional relations has paved the way for sectarian-based alignments in which religion is at the core of the peoples’ identities. Accordingly, for countries setting new political courses at home, the role of religion becomes a heavy question mark. In Egypt, much like in Turkey, as Muslim Brotherhood-type governments rise to power and aspire to shape the countries according to particular morals and norms, the result is deeply polarized societies.

In Egypt, the coup against Morsi was more than just the defeat of an ineffective government amidst a deteriorating economy and rising crime. As the Muslim Brotherhood became more authoritarian in its governance, the party began to influence the political and cultural identity of Egypt as it saw fit, which many Egyptians agreed with. But most Egyptians who protested against Morsi viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as operating on particular religious ideology rather than national interests. A few weeks before the coup, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood held a conference in which Morsi stood silent as hardline clerics encouraged the Egyptians to lead a “holy war” in Syria and become martyrs.

With their domestic policies intrusive in private life and foreign policies selective in favor of their own, the Muslim Brotherhood government antagonized the non-Islamist portions of the nation. Hazem Kandil, an Egyptian political sociologist at Cambridge University, estimated that “80% of Egyptians are completely disillusioned with Islamism as represented by the Brotherhood and want to see it uprooted from political life. Some support the army while being suspicious of where things are heading. Some are calling for Sisi to take power."

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only faction polarizing Egypt. As Professor Shibley Telhami put it, “The Muslim Brotherhood overestimated the extent to which Egyptians identify with Islam. And now, with their violent repression of the Brotherhood, the generals who ousted Morsi risk underestimating it.” A polarized society offers no middle ground to its members. Today Egypt is torn between supporters of the military and supporters of the protesters, which in Egyptian society translates into “Islamist” and “others”. A Washington Post article describes an incident with a pro-Morsi protester Hoda Mokhtar outside of the Supreme Constitutional Court: “As she spoke to a reporter, she was quickly surrounded by several Morsi opponents, who shouted ‘Liar!’ One of the scores of police officers guarding the building approached and snarled at her to leave. ‘You see the democracy?’ she said.”

Egypt needs to avoid repeating Turkey’s mistakes. Antagonisms between the religious and secular populations of Turkey grew for decades as leaders from both camps, civil and military, disregarded each other. The Egyptian military, to avoid deepening the polarization in the Egyptian society, must not oppress any faction, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

After the coup, interim President Mansour championed the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country's political process. Today, Interim Prime Minister al-Beblawi is saying the process should not include “those who don’t accept the principles of no use of violence, no religion in politics, no attacks against minorities and no discrimination,” in an obvious reference to the Brotherhood. Surely, no one with true democratic aspirations would argue against this. But in a society like Egypt that battles a heightened identity crisis, such accusations may cause more harm than good. Neither pole can impose a single Egyptian identity upon the country. It has to be defined by an emerging middle ground. Egypt today needs good leaders that promote only this.