Egypt security chiefs could have avoided bloodshed, say diplomats

Western mediators believe a compromise had been possible, but was nixed by hard-liners in Cairo

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi throw stones during clashes with security forces in Cairo on August 14, 2013.

The bloodshed unleashed when Egypt's security forces assaulted two protest camps in Cairo on Wednesday has dashed hopes of any imminent political solution to the six-week standoff over deposed President Mohammed Morsi. But international mediators who had worked to broker a compromise believe that a deal was possible and may have been overruled by Egypt's security chiefs, a grim portent for the country's political future.

Mediators believe they had won the consent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which led the pro-Morsi protests, for a deal that would have reintegrated the movement into politics. That deal, according to some familiar with the content of the negotiations, would have required a series of confidence-building measures, mostly on the Brotherhood's part. Despite their fiery rhetoric, some of the movement's leaders who had managed to avoid the dragnet that saw thousands of their comrades jailed and their protest camps under siege had been quietly engaged in talks.

"We had a political plan that was on the table, that had been accepted by the other side [the Muslim Brotherhood]," European Union envoy Bernardino Leon, who helped lead the mediation effort with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, told Reuters. "They [the authorities] could have taken this option. So all that has happened today was unnecessary."

An outside source familiar with the negotiations told Al Jazeera that the Brotherhood had agreed to cut the size of its sit-ins by half in exchange for the release of high-ranking member Saad el-Katatni, the chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and speaker of the defunct parliament. The leader of the Islamist-leaning Wasat Party, Aboul el-Ela Mady, would also have been released.

But the political forces that had backed the military's ouster of Morsi on July 3 were divided over seeking accommodation with the Brotherhood. Some officials in the military-backed government, including Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, had warned they were prepared to disperse the sit-ins by force, but Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular liberal Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was involved in the negotiations, warned publicly that he would resign if the security forces were unleashed. ElBaradei made good on his warning and announced his resignation on Wednesday night.

But the offensive by security forces appears to lack a clear political endgame. 

"Is Egypt closer to dealing with this very serious political divide and crisis? The obvious answer to that is no," Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow with Washington's Century Foundation who had spoken with figures involved in the negotiations, told Al Jazeera. "This runs the risk of metastasizing the problem, expanding it," he said, predicting greater militancy among Islamists.


According to participants in the talks, Hanna said, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi had appeared ambivalent about whether to clear the sit-ins at Cairo University in Giza and at the Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque in Nasr City, which had turned into sprawling, full-service camps after six weeks of protest. The military chief was "not on the hawkish end of internal deliberations," Hanna said.

U.S. officials had also clearly pressured Sisi and others to refrain from attacking the protests. The Pentagon publicized the fact that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had regularly spoken with Sisi by phone following Morsi's ouster, while Burns spent nearly a week in talks with different power brokers in Cairo earlier this month. On Thursday, Hagel called Sisi again to warn him that “the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”

In a news conference Wednesday night, Ibrahim reinforced fears among both Brotherhood supporters, and many liberals and leftists, that the July 3 coup marks a return of the regime of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Ibrahim promised "that as soon as conditions stabilize and the Egyptian street stabilizes … security will be restored to this nation as if it was before Jan. 25, and more." Mubarak was ousted on Jan. 25, 2011.

"These people have a very warped view of what counts as restraint," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

Stork said there was "no question" that some of the demonstrators at the sit-ins had been armed, and both amateur and government video posted online on Wednesday evening appeared to show plainclothes men among demonstrators firing assault rifles. Still, he said, security forces had far abused their authority.

“It was a policing situation, it wasn’t a military clash," he said, suggesting that the action of the security forces had violated international standards.

The political fallout of the action against the protest camps is unclear. There were signs that the bloody measures used to clear the sit-ins had some measure of popular support.

Hours before the vice president tendered his resignation, the anti-Morsi National Salvation Front (NSF) previously led by ElBaradei issued a statement applauding the crackdown, saying that Egypt had "raised its head high in victory over those who traffic in the name of religion." They issued a later statement expressing “regret” at ElBaradei’s resignation, mentioning that he had not consulted them and pointedly declaring their “steadfast support” for the current government.

Ahmed Khairy, a member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party -- one of the NSF’s primary members -- said that Brotherhood members had brought the crackdown upon themselves and that "the real popular will was to push them out from the ruling position, because what we have reached now is due to their stubbornness and denying the facts on the ground."

But ElBaradei's resignation may be telling, because, according to Hanna, it "chips away at the civilian character of the state, and it begins to look much more like a military regime."


That would pose a problem for the U.S., which supports the Egyptian military with an annual stipend of $1.3 billion but whose laws require cutting military aid in the event of a coup. The Obama administration has declined to characterize Morsi's ouster as such.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday condemned the crackdown, calling it "deplorable" and a "serious blow to reconciliation." And, he warned, "The interim government and the military, which together possess the preponderance of power in this confrontation, have a unique responsibility to prevent further violence."

On Friday, President Barack Obama said he had ordered the cancellation of Operation Bright Star, a huge, biennial military exercise between the U.S. and Egypt. The exercise is a premier event for Egyptian officers to mingle with their American counterparts, who often provide trainings for Egypt’s military as part of the two countries’ longstanding relationship. 

Still, the decision did not touch the crucial military aid to Egypt and, for some, did not go far enough. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University historian of the Middle East and influential writer on Egypt, called for the administration to "suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government" if it "remains on its current path."

But Sisi and most of those he appointed believe that the majority of Egyptians sympathize with their stated goal of "stabilizing" the country, even if that means pushing the Brotherhood underground. ElBaradei’s stance, in fact, may be a lonely one. After he resigned, the NSF expressed its regret, chastising him in a statement for not consulting beforehand and stating the body's "steadfast" support for the military-appointed government.

"As you know, I saw other alternatives to resolve the crisis peacefully, and there were ideas on the table for a national consensus, but things didn't go that way," ElBaradei wrote in his resignation letter to President Adly Mansour. "Reconciliation will come in the end, but after we have suffered dearly, which in my opinion, I thought was possible to avoid."

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