Can Egypt overcome the antagonism between Islamists and nationalists?

By Geoffroy d’Aspremont

The events that played out in Egypt this week make us fear that the transition process, in which the country finds itself since 2011, is done with. The interim military government seems to be very arbitrary and to use fear to suppress any challengers to its authority. As a result the economy is deteriorating more and more, and the country runs the risk of being divided and becoming more violent.

In Minya, in the heart of the country, a criminal court sentenced 529 people to death, all belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, for the murder of a policeman, attempts to murder and attacking a police station during August 2013. The trial only took two days. However, it must be emphasized that even though the verdict may be subject to review by the Supreme Court, responsible for ensuring that the procedure has been followed, one can only be outraged by this travesty of justice. It is likely that the penalties will not be enforced. It can be considered a warning from the government in order to intimidate those who dare to challenge the legitimacy of the current government. But that’s not the end of it, 683 people, including former supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badie, is also to be judged in Minya for similar charges.

Also journalists and anyone who criticizes the government are targeted. More than 20 journalists, including correspondents from Al Jazeera, the Emir of Qatar’s channel who supports the Brotherhood, were arrested, as well as activists who participated in the events on Tahrir Square in 2011.

It’s in this context of repression that General Abdelfattah Al Sissi, leader of Egypt since elected president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in July last year, announced he is  resigning from his position as Commander in Chief of the Army and Minister of Defense to present his candidacy for the next presidential election to be held on 26 and 27 May.

The country therefore has great difficulty getting out of the deadly struggle, which also affects many other countries, between Arab nationalists and Islamists. As the Muslim Brothers before it, the current regime, despite its promises, seems unable to lead Egypt to democracy and to escape this antagonism. The Egypt of tomorrow will not be stable if the Muslim Brotherhood are hunted down and banned from the nation. Their weight and representation in Egyptian society cannot be denied.

For Egypt’s to have a successful transition, it must, as was the case in Tunisia, bring together its main political forces, whether nationalist, Islamist or liberal. Each party will have to accept that the other can exist on the political spectrum. A system which claims to prepare the transition must also promote transitional justice. Justice can’t be expeditious and partisan, even in the name of safeguarding stability.

Being a very pious man and a great admirer of Nasser, Al Sissi could have been the one who could reconcile the Egyptians. Unfortunately, recent events prove otherwise. Although admired and adored by some Egyptians, he has become enemy number one of the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees him as a ruthless dictator – the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has caused nearly 1,400 victims since July.

It is only by reducing this polarization and thus by reinstating the Muslim Brotherhood in the political spectrum that the violence will cease and a true transitional regime will be put in place. In light of the extreme ferocity of the repression against the opponents – and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular – and the likely stranglehold on power by the military before and after the elections, the specter of civil war unfortunately threatens Egypt, much to the discontent of all those who fought at Tahrir Square since 2011 for more dignity, social justice and respect for human rights. Will they stand up once again to face arbitrary and repressive authorities?