A clash between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military that deposed President Mohamed Morsi last week left at least 51 civilians dead in Cairo today and Egypt's so-called democratic transition on the brink of catastrophic failure.
Unfolding events have gone from bad to worse since the massive June 30 protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule prompted the Egyptian military – the most powerful arbiter of the nation's politics since 1952 – to depose the country's first democratically elected leader and take power once more.
Supporters of the action insist that Egypt's army merely acted as an instrument of the will of the "people," who have withdrawn support from Morsi in the year since he won 51 percent of the presidential vote over a longtime aide to the deposed Hosni Mubarak. Though it's hard to say whether a majority of Egyptians support what happened, its clear that vast numbers do and that Morsi's position had become untenable.
But the attempts to portray this all as a harmless Nerf coup – an unfortunately necessary reset of a democratic transition by the Egyptian military – should stop today. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party called for an intifada (uprising) against the military in response to the killings today. Many of its millions of supporters are likely to heed that call.
The Brotherhood deaths fall into the same category as the two dozen largely Coptic Christian protesters shot and crushed under the treads of army personnel carriers in 2011 or of the army's use of electric shock and sexual assault (so called "virginity tests") against young democracy protesters at Tahrir Square in May of that year. They were all seen as threats to public order, as the military defines it.
That the military takeover is wildly popular in some quarters doesn't make it any less of a military takeover, or lessen the danger of a swelling wave of violence in Egypt. Quite the contrary.
The Egyptian military is a force for the status quo and its officers have a paternalistic and authoritarian vision of how Egyptian society should be governed. It does not seem particularly interested in governing directly, but has remained insistent that its prerogatives should not be infringed upon by any civilian politicians and that it should be left free to run its vast network of factory and property interests, many of which are staffed by conscript labor.
The deposed President Morsi knew this. His inaugural address was fawning in its praise of the military and the police, and the constitution his Muslim Brotherhood passed while in power rewrote the history of Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising by praising the military as leading Egypt's "revolution" (in fact, the military stuck with Mubarak until the weight of protesters on the streets showed he couldn't rule anymore).
The Brotherhood's constitution, suspended by the military last week, also kept the military budget out of civilian oversight and gave the military the power to try civilians in its own courts for "crimes that harm the Armed Forces." They were remarkable concessions from an Islamist movement whose leaders had been jailed and tortured by Egypt's military for decades, but necessary ones if Morsi was to govern. "You get to rule if you leave us alone and you keep the situation calm" was the deal.
Well, the hundreds of thousands that took to the streets in June, crowds that may well have surpassed those that drove Mubarak from power, were all the evidence the military needed that Morsi had failed to live up to his end of the bargain.
While that's analogous to what happened on Feb. 11, 2011, when, with US blessing, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) bowed to the inevitable and removed Mubarak, the context is dramatically different. Then, Egyptians were aware of meaningful differences between Islamist and more secular approaches to government, but insisted that love of country and commitment to democracy would make compromise possible. There were putting decades of military dictatorship behind them and would build a new Egypt together.
Now, Egyptians in various camps are at each others' throats. The anti-Brotherhood crowds were rapturous over an Air Force flyover yesterday and have been fulsome in their praise of the military, who they seem to believe is going to deliver a robust democracy to Egypt (never mind they spent the better part of the last 60 years fighting against that). On social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, over-the-top rhetoric is flying back and forth, as it is on Egyptian television stations.
Ahead of a military press conference this afternoon, a correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic, which has generally been pro-Brotherhood in its coverage of Egypt, was hounded out of the room by shrieking pro-military Egyptian reporters. CNN had to pull its crew off the streets yesterday after protesters enraged by the network's coverage began issuing threats. That anti-Brotherhood people appear to think the military can do no wrong.
The Brothers, of course, feel betrayed – their election victory was stolen from them by their old military foes, whose pockets are brimming with US aid. More clashes and even more polarization seem inevitable.
Amid this, a national consensus on a way forward is simply not going to materialize. A profoundly anti-democratic institution is once again running Egypt's transition with the joyful acquiescence of one of the country's two principle political camps.
Such circumstances don't usually end well.