By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Hazem-al-BeblawiEgypt’s newly designated Prime Minister Hazem al Beblawi has formed a mini cabinet. The Brotherhood has refused to join the new government. Another party Al-Nur also confirmed that it will not join the interim government. The US Under Secretary of State Bill Burns flew into Cairo, within hours after Egypt’s prosecutor ordered the freezing of assets belonging to 14 top Brotherhood leaders. Burns urged for an end to all violence and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government. The visit came amid international concern over the detention of ousted president Mursi.  America and Germany have asked for release of Mursi. European Union’s foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton has called for a swift return to civilian, democratic rule and the release of political detainees.

The US administration has still not decided whether Mursi was the victim of a coup, which would legally require a freeze on some $1.5 billion in vital military and economic US assistance to Cairo. Republican US lawmakers, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have urged the administration to cut the aid in response to the coup. The New York Times described the event of July 03 as: “a forced change of power, which had the trappings of a military coup spurred by a popular revolt.”

The political arm of Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), has called for “an uprising by the people of Egypt against those trying to steal their revolution with tanks”. Egypt has an empowered, vocal and active civil society. The defiant tone of the protests is what made Mursi’s ouster possible. It was a replay of a similar civil activism that drove out Mubarak as well. Such civil society if polarized on politico-sectarian lines complicates the political process. The silver lining is that though societal divisions are deep, they do not coincide with linguistic, ethnic, or geographical cleavages.

If the military continues on a partisan course, the conflict between the two sides will escalate, and the chances for political opponents to find some common ground shall diminish incrementally. The most threatening possibility is that the military itself will become divided. Before and after the Arab Spring, the Egyptian military has retained the mantle of Egypt’s most critical political body, a stabilising entity balancing the country’s political equation.

The tragic events in Cairo on July 7, when over 50 of Mursi’s supporters were shot dead, brought things closer to a political crisis. Egypt may be edging toward a quasi civil war, its leaders should engage in serious and lasting dialogue to arrest the situation. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has condemned the killings. He has urged for independent inquiry. Egypt is a society where violence has rarely been used on a large scale. Though arms are widely available, opposing camps are not forming militant wings. State institutions continue to function. The Egyptian people are extremely frustrated with a leadership that couldn’t deliver. It has to be clear that the source of legitimacy is the people. May be the Egyptian people are restoring their stolen revolution; however there are chances that, while doing so indiscreetly, they may indeed lose handle over the revolution.

The best hope for Egypt would be a decision by the military, to back down from its open support for the secular opposition and to become an honest broker between competing political factions. This is the promise it made when it called for a government of national unity staffed by technocrats. This is the promise it violated when it floated the name of Mohamed ElBaradei, the to become prime minister. If the army can return to neutrality and hold elections, there is some hope.

After all, the Muslim Brotherhood won in a free and fair election, and Mursi was elected President of the country through a legitimate democratic process. It is also well known that he removed, from their offices, several army, judicial and political personalities. He did so to consolidate the power of a democratically-elected government and pave the way for a smooth transition from an era of military dictatorship to a democratic setup. This procedure is exercised in nearly all democratic countries and is absolutely legitimate and lawful.

On his part, President Mansour has announced a timetable for a referendum on an amended constitution and for fresh elections within 210 days. The decree said that the fresh date for presidential elections will be announced by the interim leader after the meeting of the new Parliament.

Meanwhile, the US has urged the Egyptian army to exercise “maximum restraint” and also slammed “explicit” Brotherhood calls for more violence in future. It has urged “the international community and international groups and all the free people of the world to intervene to stop further massacres… and prevent a new Syria in the Arab world”. The United States has urged Egyptian Army and the country’s interim president to stop arbitrary arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, stressing that it would create more tensions in the country. There had been many arrests in recent days “targeting specific groups,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. These “are not in line with the national reconciliation that the interim government and military say they are pursuing,” she told reporters. “If politicised arrests and detentions continue, it is hard to see how Egypt will move beyond this crisis,” Psaki added.

Egypt’s Military will once again go for forming a civilian government, neither too strong nor too weak; stubborn enough to earn a reputation for independence, yet adequately compliant to not to sideline the military.  A cultural civil war has gripped the Arab world for the past few years; the fabric of Arab society is tearing apart. Hopefully, Egypt will not get sucked into this black hole. Egypt will remain deeply divided and in a state of turmoil for a long time to come. The conflict will continue, no matter what we call it. End result might be civil strife, harsh repression, and embittered politics rather than full-scale civil war.

Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.