Two and a half years ago, Europe greeted the Arab Spring with enthusiasm. Many identified with Egyptian and Tunisians’ desire to free themselves of their despots and to re-found their states on the principles of social justice. Yet, like the French Revolution, the Arab Spring is drowning in blood – of a hundred thousand Syrians, and of many hundreds of Egyptians.
During the past few days, the Egyptian military’s forced eviction of two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins triggered violence rarely seen in Egypt’s modern history. The massacre of many hundreds of Islamists has unleashed chaos throughout Egypt.
Over the weekend, the country’s interim government attempted to assert control over secularists and Muslim Brotherhood alike.
After flagging a ban on the Brotherhood on Saturday, the army banned secular militias on Sunday. The militias had taken control of Cairo districts and were “attacking and arresting Islamists and foreigners”, says El País.
More broadly, observers in Europe concur – last week may have marked the Arab Uprising’s decisive turning point.
“Where reconciliation [before last week]seemed possible … two irreconcilable camps – the army and its secular supporters on one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters – now confront each other,” writes German weekly Der Spiegel. “The young activists [of Tahrir Square]and the liberals are irrelevant.“
Yet what will happen next in Egypt is moot. Two hypotheses are circulating in the international media.
According to the first theory, Egypt will now fall back towards a secular military dictatorship, of the kind once ruled by Hosni Mubarak, or Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's post-war President and Arab Socialist.
Indeed, Egyptian writer Chalid al-Chamissi writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, state media in Egypt are positioning military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the successor to Nasser.
“The songs of the sixties are on the radio and so are phrases like ‘our beloved Abdel Nasser, he is with us, he is speaking to us’,” al-Chamissi says. “People are reacting to this campaign…in discussions, [they]make comparisons between Sisi, the defence minister, and Nasser.”
Meanwhile, a second hypothesis previews a civil war in the Arab world’s most populous nation; a secular versus Islamist struggle, of the kind seen in Algeria in the 1990s.
“The leaders of the Brotherhood have convinced everyone that death is sweeter for a Muslim than life is for an infidel,” a Cairo correspondent of Italian weekly L’Espresso observes.
“Better to die than to go on the run again; better the civil war than torture in prison. Particularly for the leaders.”
It’s believed that around 200,000 Algerians died in the conflict, which lasted eight years. Mutinying soldiers fought on the side of Islamists in that war, which was ultimately won by the army.
“The Muslim Brotherhood tells us that there have already been cases of soldiers refusing to obey orders,” EU diplomat Bernadino León tells Spanish daily ABC.
“I don’t know how frequently [this is occurring], but it’s probable there are cases. It’s said that a quarter [of soldiers mutinied]in Algeria. If the same thing happens in Egypt, it will be terrible.”
And if the conflict between army and Islamists does end in civil war, it is unlikely that the army will succeed in quickly repressing the Brotherhood or other opponents, opines the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“Unlike two years ago [during the Egyptian revolution], many Egyptians are armed to the teeth – with weapons from Gaza, from Libya, or from their own hobby shooting exploits,” the Munich paper writes. “For a long time now, Egypt’s army has been more of a business empire than an agile fighting force.”
In 1798, years after the Jacobin terror and just before the rise of Napoleon, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant defended the French Revolution.
No matter how high the costs of the French Revolution turned out to be, Kant argued, the French people’s revolt against the Bourbon dynasty occasioned a desire for freedom among people everywhere. Even after all the “misery” and all of the “atrocities” of the French Revolution, people everywhere remembered the initial event with hope and enthusiasm, Kant concluded. That’s because, in the philosopher’s opinion, Europeans’ desire for a more just political system remained alive, despite all the massacres and the political convolutions in Paris.
While the repression and the bloodshed continue, the US and Europe have been unable to stop Egypt’s sprint towards chaos, an editorialist for Italian daily Corriere della Sera argues. In recent weeks, US president Barack Obama has seemed to equivocate on whom to support in Egypt, dispatching envoys to Cairo to condemn the coup, while US secretary of state John Kerry expressed support for the July putsch.
“Washington has discovered it has no more friends in Egypt,” writes the Milan daily. The Muslim Brotherhood has accused it of favoring the coup …Sisi – fortified with Saudi and Emirate funds – has cried ‘Western interference’.”
Meanwhile, “Europe has done what it could, and it has maybe done more than normally” the Italian paper continues. “But the influence of Europe is what it is.”
Despite that, Europe has been attempting to mediate a peaceful solution even after last week’s bloodbath. Paris hosted talks between Brotherhood backers Qatar and military supporters Saudi Arabia over the weekend.
Yet, as the past few weeks have indicated, neither Europe nor the United States is more than an observer in today’s Egypt.
It is the power game in the Middle East – on the streets of Cairo and in the lobbies of Doha and Riyadh – that will decide whether General Sisi ends up playing the historical role of a Napoleon, or if he finishes a mere revolutionary footnote.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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