Transitions

Why Now Is the Time for Dialogue in Egypt

At times it was the plague. At others it was cholera or scabies.

Supporters of the military takeover in Egypt sure aren't shy about expressing their contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Now they're spreading rumors about the outbreak of various horrible diseases amid the pro-Morsy protestors who are camped out in the center of Cairo. There's no basis for any of the accusations -- and that's not really the point. Morsy-haters are eager to depict the sympathizers of the deposed president as a bunch of dirty and illiterate bumpkins.

This past weekend, the military dropped leaflets on the Brotherhood protestors, warning them to abandon their sit-in. That prompted the pro-military crowd to unleash another wave of contemptuous comments about Morsy's supporters. Among the views I've heard: "Those village hillbillies can't even read." Or: "They should just eradicate those rats, not try to reason with them." Running through these remarks, with their condescending references to the poverty and illiteracy of their opponents, is an unmistakable strain of class warfare. This isn't political discord anymore. It's unabashed hatred, and it's festering.

The sentiment may not be universal -- such an assertion would be impossible -- but it's common enough to be a legitimate cause for severe worry.

Of course I'm only too aware of the violence that the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for, and I'm vehemently against it. The hostility displayed by their supporters, even against children, is gruesome. This article isn't about defending them at all; it's about us, the opposition to Morsy, which opposed the military before him, and opposed Mubarak before that.

At the height of the ambient violence today it is important that we remember the values we stand for. The irresponsible call to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from the political process, now uttered by many who once demanded justice and political participation for all, must be strongly rejected.

Naturally, the criminals among the Muslim Brotherhood must be brought to justice; the leaders who would be found guilty of incitement of violence or other crimes by a court of law can be banished from political participation until it snows on Tahrir. But many of the MB voters aren't guilty. And most of those at the pro-Morsy sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya square aren't guilty. In fact, many of them believe that if they leave the perceived safety of their sit-ins that they will be massacred by the army. It's difficult to squarely lay the blame on people who were cornered and made to fight for their -- real or perceived -- survival.

In fact, this is a self-interested demand. Alienating the MB supporters, confirming their sentiment of constant victimization (which is inherent to the culture of their group), will only drive them further apart from the national fold. An important purpose of the January 25, 2011 revolution that brought down Mubarak was to redefine the political playing field, which was ruled by the army and controlled by Mubarak and his inner circle. For 30 months, we struggled to wrestle away the control of the politique from the military establishment, and then from the Brotherhood religion-flavored establishment, who insisted on unilaterally defining the rules. In fact, a large part of the reason why the masses took to the streets on June 30, 2013 was precisely in reaction to the unilateralism of the Muslim Brotherhood and their insistence to extend their control to every institution in Egypt.

It is unfortunate that the army interfered in the June 30 protests. With its coup, it cut short a strong popular movement that would likely have removed the Brotherhood regime, or at least pushed it into quiescence. Though the army claims to be on the people's side (and now has a lot of people believing it), it just isn't. As a sign of things to come, the new rulers have pushed through the reinstatement of senior police officers [Ar.] to their previous jobs in Mubarak's political police, which was supposed to be reformed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Hardly the actions of rulers with the people's best interests at heart.

But we must make do with the hand we've been dealt. If civil forces are to have any control over the political drawing board, then we must endeavor to create an inclusive political system, one that will allow the participation of all political forces under a set of rules: respect for human rights and dignity, separation of church and state, guaranteed women and minority rights, basic social and economic rights, etc. Under such rules, which are to be enshrined in a new constitution, all parties should be allowed to compete.

I understand that the continuing brutality makes it hard for many of us to imagine pluralistic participation, but there's just no other way out. And after all, if pro-Mubarak and SCAF-worshipping political forces are allowed to compete, then all should be able to.

In the existing climate this is a difficult position to take. Any discourse that could remotely be interpreted as being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood supporters is promptly stifled. I've never received so many hateful comments on social media as I have this week. (My thanks to @Jack, by the way, for creating the block feature on Twitter.) Established columnists such as Amr Hamzawy are also being compelled to defend themselves [Ar.] against attacks from extremist voices.

"If you want to make peace, talk to your enemies, not your friends," goes the adage. Direct dialogue is necessary and unavoidable. And whatever backchannel negotiations are currently ongoing, if any -- unlikely as that may seem given the army's ideologically driven adversarial position regarding the Brotherhood -- must be made public.

This is the only way we can ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't descend once again into secret and violent action and that the army won't be allowed to further push the clock back into the Mubarak era. But most importantly, it will relieve a lot of popular pressure that is threatening not only the present, but the future of peace in Egypt.    

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

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