Tragedy and Nonsense

Tragedy and Nonsense

by Dr. James Zogby


Any honest assessment of the events unfolding across Egypt will recognize that they have all the aspects of a classic tragedy. The characters involved, each in their own way, have demonstrated that they have been unable to rise above their fatal flaws with the result being the horror we are now witnessing. What Egypt needs at this time is a clear-headed acknowledgment of what went wrong and what is the way forward. What it doesn’t need are the nonsense claims made by some partisans who wildly blame others while seeking to absolve themselves.

What Egypt needed most out of its revolution was a national consensus that could establish a functioning government capable of creating order and providing employment and prosperity for its growing population. That’s what our polling has consistently showed. What it got instead was a group ill-suited to lead and a military that only knew one way to deal with a problem. The result is this tragedy that is now playing out across the country.

In the first place, the Brotherhood could not govern or build the much needed consensus that Egypt needed in the post-Mubarak era. After winning a default election (since they were the only organized party in town) by the narrowest of margins, they focused their attention more on consolidating their hold over the reins of power instead of addressing Egypt’s needs. In the end, they made enemies not only of those whom they had defeated but those potential allies whose votes had enabled them to win, in the first place. The Brotherhood’s misreading of the public mood led to their isolation and ultimately to the massive demonstrations calling for their removal.

Egypt’s military, too, became a victim of its own weakness. With the public calling for action, they responded and overreacted, as militaries are wont to do—first by deposing and arresting President Morsi, and then by assuming that they could use overwhelming force to end the Brotherhood’s weeks-long sit-ins that had paralyzed entire neighborhoods.

By assuming that there could be a violent solution to what is at its core a political problem, Egypt’s military has now only deepened and made more virulent the country’s political crisis.

The Brotherhoods “sit-ins” were not political acts, they were more hostile takeovers that set up a “state-within-the-state”. As such, more than protests, they became acts of provocation that only served to further aggravate an increasingly frustrated and hostile public, while defiantly goading the military to act.

In reality then, it was the flawed instinct of both the Brotherhood and military that led to this tragedy.

What is both disturbing and especially unhelpful are the half truths and/or nonsensical claims being made by some that only serve to obfuscate Egypt’s situation and the needs of its people.

For example, in an editorial in the New York Times, a former minister in the Morsi government attempts to describe the situation in Egypt as follows: “this is a battle between those who envision a pluralistic Egypt in which the individual has dignity and power changes hands at the ballot box and those who support a militarized state in which government is imposed on the people by force”.

While there may be some justification for the second half of this charge, our polling makes clear that the vast majority of Egyptians simply do not believe that the Morsi government ever envisioned “a pluralistic Egypt in which the individual has dignity”. What they saw taking place during the one year in which Morsi was in power was the exact opposite. The millions who signed petitions and who demonstrated calling for Morsi to step down were frightened that the President and his party were consolidating an absolutist and intolerant regime. What they hoped for was a real chance for a tolerant, pluralistic government. This majority opinion still holds true and is waiting in the wings for its aspirations to be realized.

What Egyptians have seen both before and since the military action has only reinforced their fears about the Brotherhood’s intent. First, there was the incitement against Egypt’s small Shi’a Muslim community that resulted in the brutal hanging of several members of this group. And in recent days there has been the all-out assault on Egypt’s Christians. At last count 50 churches have been attacked, with at least 19 burned and other ransacked. Christian businesses have been looted and individuals have been attacked, as well.

Not only Egyptian partisans are guilty of obfuscation and half-truths. There are those, like Senator John McCain, who point an accusing finger at President Obama calling Egypt his “colossal failure” saying “we bear a large amount of responsibility for the bloodletting that’s taking place”, lamenting that “no one is listening to us”. McCain and others, therefore, call on the US to immediately cut aid to Egypt, assuming that this would rectify the situation.

But these charges ring hollow to most Egyptians who still blame the US for supporting and emboldening the Brotherhood while they were in power. In reality, as President Obama has correctly noted, while the US has abiding national security interests in maintaining ties with Egypt, it has limited leverage in directing how the Egyptian military behaves in dealing with internal matters. In this context, the President’s statement was not as some critics have suggested “weak” or “passive” or “spineless”. It was honest.

As for the calls to cut aid, these also ring hollow. The economic assistance to Egypt has already been cut. The largest portion of the US aid package is in the form of military equipment supplied by US companies for which contracts have already been signed. The real losers of breaking these contracts, therefore, will not be Egypt’s military, but US suppliers. This fact, though not clear to the US public, is already understood by Egyptians who in polls tell us that they do not want the US aid because they feel that it is the US or Israel and not Egypt that is the main beneficiary of this assistance package.

As President Obama noted, what is taking place in Egypt is deplorable and tragic. Momentous change is never easy and never takes a straight path toward its goal. The tragic events now taking place in Egypt are not, as some are suggesting, the end of Egypt’s movement toward democracy, it is the beginning. The process that began two-and-one-half years ago has hit a terrifying bump in the road. The consequences are horrific, but the vibrancy of Egypt’s civil society has demonstrated its ability to reassert itself before and will yet again. This is not the time for friends to cut and run. Rather it is critical that friends remain supportive of the Egyptian people and their aspirations for an inclusive democracy that can provide security and opportunity for all of its people.


This was originally published on The Arab American Institute (AAI) site as part of “Washington Watch”, a regular weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby, author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters, a book that brings into stark relief the myths, assumptions, and biases that hold us back from understanding the people of the Arab world.


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