Egypt – “Unfortunately, there will be no quiet transition “

OLIVER MAKSANOliver Maksan who followed closely the events, including the deposition of President Morsi, unfolding in Egypt for close to two weeks, responds to questions posed by Maria Lozano of Aid to the Church in Need.

Mr Maksan, you returned only yesterday from a longish visit to Egypt. How was the situation there on your arrival?

I arrived on Friday 28 June. That day there had already been large protests throughout the country against President Mursi. The first deaths were also reported on the same day. For example, a young American was murdered in Alexandria. The United States flew out their embassy personnel, and flights from Cairo to Europe and the USA were reportedly booked out. All those things did not bode well for the coming weekend.

Sunday 30 June was in fact the anniversary of President Mursi’s taking office, was it not?

 Yes, it was. A coalition of his opponents had, according to their own claim, obtained 22 million signatures calling for the resignation of Mursi. Massive demonstrations were expected. It was feared that there would be violence and excesses. I was staying with some Catholic nuns, close to Tahrir Square. They were very worried, but at the same time very optimistic that Mursi would have to go. That was likewise the view of many people in Cairo. “The Muslim Brothers are the serpent in the country”, said one woman to me. On the evening of my arrival I went to Tahrir Square. Everybody was nervous as to what the weekend might bring.

Did the expected violence on 30 June in fact happen? 

No, actually it did not. Against all expectations, the day everyone had been so feverishly awaiting passed off peacefully. On the day itself I visited both demonstrations – both the supporters and the opponents of Mursi. Everywhere there was a peaceful atmosphere. In fact there was a real mood of national festivity. In their demonstrations the Muslim Brothers were obviously trying hard to make their position clear to the Western visitors. Their president had been legitimately elected and would not resign, they said. At the same time, however, many of them also held thick steel bars and wooden clubs in their hands – for their own defence, they insisted. One of them said to me, “We will defend our president with our lives.” Meanwhile, on Tahrir Square, they were continuing to demand Mursi’s resignation.

The anti-Mursi coalition “Tamarod” then sought to put the president under pressure by threatening to cripple the country through civil disobedience?

 Exactly. Then on Monday 1 July the Army stepped in and also issued an ultimatum. If Mursi did not bow to the will of the people and resign within 48 hours, then the Army itself would intervene to impose a solution. This amounted to a coup, announced in advance. The rejoicing among Mursi’s opponents was huge, as expected. They knew now that Mursi had already been defeated. On Tahrir Square fireworks were set off, and long processions of cars drove hooting through the city. There were families with young children, wandering around Tahrir Square. It was like a victory parade after a football match.

Unfortunately however, the situation did change after that. When did the mood change? Was it after the ultimatum on Wednesday?

 Yes, but after some initial delay. On Wednesday at around 4:30 p.m. the ultimatum expired, and the tension was evident everywhere. But at first nothing happened. A little later, however, at around 7 p.m., events then took place in rapid succession. The Army took up positions at all the important points in the city. And the Army Chief, General Al-Sisi announced that he would make a declaration on television that evening. Then, at around 9 p.m., when he informed the nation of the deposition of President Mursi and the establishment of a transitional government, the rejoicing was indescribable and continued unabated for hours. They went on celebrating until well after midnight. The Christians likewise celebrated the deposition of Mursi with unreserved delight. However, on the other side, the Muslim Brothers were speechless. Some Islamist fanatics quickly lighted on the Copts as the guilty ones and set fire, that same evening, to a Catholic church near Minya, to the south of Cairo.

Why do they blame the Copts, of all people?

 Because then they don’t have to blame any Muslims. Besides, as a relatively small group – only around 10% of the population are Christians – the Copts are collectively easier to intimidate. And on top of this, such a scapegoating mentality helps to strengthen the inner coherence of the Islamists. For example, one prominent member of the Muslim Brothers, Safwat Al-Hegazy, has again and again threatened the Copts that blood would flow if they should demonstrate for the resignation of the president.

For all the celebrations following the dismissal of Mursi, were there not also voices of concern?

All in all, the mood during the past week has been very optimistic. The removal from power of Mursi took place very quietly. The Army had forged a huge coalition against him that included not only the Left, the Liberals and the Christians but also Al-Azhar University and even the Salafist Nur Party. During the television announcement of the deposition of Mursi, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II was sitting next to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.

And what about the Christians? Were they not concerned? After all, as a minority they are particularly vulnerable.

 They fear violence on the part of the Islamists. On the whole, however, the Christians were delighted and relieved. The message to them was: you are part of Egypt once again. Under Mursi they had felt excluded. On Friday I spoke with the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim. He believes that the political and economic problems are great, but not insoluble.

Has this optimism evaporated since Monday morning? There were the clashes in Cairo between Mursi’s supporters and the Army in which at least 51 people were killed. Many are speaking of a massacre.

I was close to the scene of these confrontations early on Monday. I saw Mursi supporters streaming with blood. Shots rang out in the distance. It has caused indignation around the world, and in the country itself the fear has grown since then. The Christians in particular feel vulnerable. “We are easy victims”, they tell us again and again. Quite apart from the regrettable deaths of the victims, the political damage has been great. The Salafists have pulled out of the transitional coalition, and the Grand Imam is considering whether to suspend his cooperation. This takes away a great deal of the credibility of the transitional government in the eyes of Muslims. Now it has become easier for the Muslim Brothers to denounce the dismissal of Mursi as a putsch by the old forces of the Mubarak regime.

Where are the opponents of Mursi at present? We only hear of the Army now.

 In Cairo they are still gathered in the Nasr City quarter, next to the Rabaa mosque. That is where they have set up their camp. Whereas the clashes of Monday morning took place in another part of the city. The ordinary citizens of Cairo have seen little of this, because the city is so huge.

The media are speaking of civil war. Is this an exaggeration in your view?

We need to be careful about using such incendiary language. Undoubtedly, the division in the country is there, and growing deeper. There is no doubt that Monday served to escalate this. Moreover, the Muslim Brothers and the Islamists have a solid support base that represents at least 25% of the electorate. Hence they remain a political factor. On the other hand, the opposition to Mursi was broad-based and not simply a divide between secular forces and Islamists. On Tahrir Square I saw women in full veils who were opposed to Mursi because his policies were bad. Nonetheless, the readiness to resort to violence is growing, and weapons are also easily available. It is very unlikely that it will come to a civil war like that in Syria, for example. In any case, the Army and the police are simply too strong. But it is very likely that there will be repeated eruptions of violence. Nor can terrorist attacks by jihadist groups be ruled out. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood of a quiet transition. The worst-case scenario would be something like that in Algeria, where the Islamists who were ejected from power in the 90s went over to an armed resistance. The best hope is for the Muslim Brothers to be reintegrated into the political process.

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