As Egypt's military-backed government drafts a new constitution in secret, there are worrying signs that political violence is becoming the norm in the Arab world's largest country.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
When Egypt's military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in early June, it was based on a simple public presence. Hordes of protesters against his government had demonstrated he'd lost any mandate to lead, and Egypt risked a period of prolonged instability and violence if they didn't step in.
Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's pitch was essentially: "We're the military, our job is to protect Egypt from all external and internal threats, and we're going to restore order."
But since then, the interim government installed by the generals has moved aggressively against not only the top tier of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but against the very existence of the group, for decades the largest and best-organized social movement in the country. The worry has been that a winner-takes-all approach to Egypt's political development, with the losers facing annihilation, could spawn even worse instability than Egypt has endured since the end of the military-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Feb. 2011.
Lately, there are signs that those fears are becoming reality. This week, a drive-by shooting targeted a Coptic Christian wedding at a church in Giza, just across the Nile from Cairo, leaving four dead, two of them little girls, and 17 wounded. Egypt's Coptic minority has been targeted both before Morsi was deposed and since, usually by Islamist supporters (though there's no evidence yet of who carried out the church attack). Also interesting about the attack were persistent complaints from parishioners at the church that police protection for the facility was withdrawn in June.
Egypt is now a country of little trust and great fear. Incompetence in providing security is frequently interpreted as malice, and conspiracies rage around the humble cafes of Cairo much as they do on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But if whatever legitimacy Sisi and his fellow generals have is based on providing security – and protecting the "dignity" of all Egyptians – how are they doing?
So far, not so good. A lot of blood has been spilled since the takeover, and there's been a widespread crackdown on political. Like the alleged murder of 39 Muslim Brotherhood captives by the police in the back of a van. Or the detention of most of the senior leadership of the movement about about 2,000 supporters since. Or the attempted assassination of Egypt's Interior Minister in September. Or attacks on 47 churches and monasteries in the middle of August alone. Or the rocket-propelled grenade attack in October on a government installation in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, once a leafy enclave favored by Egypt's dwindling community of well-heeled expatriates.
Are these outliers, or inevitable hiccups in a chaotic country in the middle of just the latest iteration of its seemingly interminable transition? Or signs of worse to come?
My guess is that worse is coming. Morsi is in detention, as are at least six other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, according to the movement's press operation, which has moved out of Egypt to avoid arrests. In September, an Egyptian court banned the group from any social, political, or religious activities in Egypt. On Monday, an interim government committee formed to take control of the Brotherhood's finances said about 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($150 million) in bank accounts and property had been seized and recommended that all the money simply be rolled over into the government's budget. The government is also planning on placing 15 schools run by the group under the control of the education ministry.
All of this is leaving the rank and file of the movement leaderless, and with its leaders looking at an organization that has few resources to fight for its survival – let alone for political influence – aside from violence and protest. While it's true that many Egyptians were frightened by the prospect of a forced Muslim Brotherhood Islamicization of the society, a key reason that vast public protests preceded the military takeover in July, it remains the case that many millions of Egyptians support the movement, and few current events as an anti-Islamic conspiracy.
When people's backs are against the wall, they often fight with the only tools available to them.