Months-Long Political Crisis In Egypt Erupts Into Violence

Security forces in Cairo have begun to forcibly disband two massive protest camps there. Supporters of ousted Islamist President Morsi have been conducting a sit-in for weeks amid threats of a government crackdown. For details, Renee Montagne talks to Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst with The Century Foundation.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Egypt is now officially in a state of emergency, as the months-long political crisis there erupted in what appears to be unprecedented violence. Security forces in Cairo moved in to forcibly disband two massive protest camps. Scores of people have been killed. Our own reporter, Leila Fadel, is describing grisly scenes at a field hospital, including dozens of bodies, and one woman shot in the head.

GREENE: Supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party have been sitting in for weeks amid threats that a government crackdown was coming. Well, that crackdown came this morning, with tear gas, riot police and bulldozers.

MONTAGNE: The scene in Cairo is still highly chaotic. To get some perspective, we reached by phone Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who is in Cairo.

And let me begin by asking first whether this is a watershed moment in this political crisis.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: I think so, because there were other options, frankly, for dealing with this. And the question becomes: Now what? And it's not a question that the Egyptian authorities and the government have thought through sufficiently. This sit-in was a symbolic movement, and the consequences of its dispersal are potentially quite severe. I think it's foolhardy to imagine that the supporters of Morsi will simply pack up and go home in the face of state repression.

And, of course, there is the broader concern about rising militancy. And we've seen a series of sectarian reprisals with churches being burned in various parts of the country, particularly in upper Egypt. And we've seen growing lawlessness in Sinai. And so I think there is deep concern that this will perhaps be a further spur to this kind of militancy.

MONTAGNE: Although, from the point of view the army - or security forces of the interim government, which is run by the army - could they argue that they had to do something now that just ended this crisis?

HANNA: Well, that's clearly the narrative they've put forward, that these sit-ins were impeding potential forward progress, that they were a threat to peace and stability and any possibility of a return to normalcy. Of course, the cure for this ill might actually end up being worse than the previous situation. But that is clearly the narrative that has been put forward, that these protests had to be dispersed, and that the longer they went on, the more complicated their dispersal would be. I think that narrative is quite flawed.

MONTAGNE: Well, another question out there is: What was the Muslim Brotherhood's interest in staying there? There was talk over these last weeks, some talk of being martyrs to the cause. I mean, they could have dispersed, one would argue, and negotiated with the government.

HANNA: They could have. You know, when the government made the dispersal of the sit-in their number one, number two and number three priorities, they clearly endowed the Brotherhood with a great deal of leverage, and this became their only leverage. And I think if the government had chosen to approach these protests in a different manner, I think it would have undercut the Brother's leverage in continuing the protests sites and the sit-ins.

But clearly, that is not - that wasn't the path chosen by either side. And we had a strange sort of escalation ladder, where the incentives for both sides, the perceptions of their interests were in escalating the situation further. And that's where Egypt now finds itself.

MONTAGNE: That's Michael Wahid Hanna with the Century Foundation. Thank you very much.

HANNA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: He's speaking to us live from Cairo on the morning that Egyptian security forces are breaking up political protests.

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