Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Remains Defiant After Crackdown

Hundreds of people were killed in Egypt Wednesday when armed forces cleared protest camps set up by backers of ousted President Morsi. David Greene talks to Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the situation in Egypt.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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

In Egypt this morning, supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood remain defiant, despite the violent government crackdown on them yesterday. The death toll from the security forces' attack on the Brotherhood's protest in Cairo, and the ensuing clashes around the country, is now at over 500 and thousands are injured. The Muslim Brotherhood vows to protest until Morsi, in custody since the military coup early last month, is reinstated. The military has placed the country under curfews and a state of emergency.

To learn more about the situation, we reached Egypt scholar Steven Cook. He's senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also the author of "The Struggle for Egypt." Good morning.

STEVEN COOK: Good morning.

GREENE: Can you start with the taking us into the mind of the military and the government? Why did they feel compelled to carry out this crackdown yesterday?

COOK: Well, I think there are two main reasons. First, the Brotherhood has sought to delegitimize the political process that the military put in place after its intervention on July 3. Over the course of the last month, the military has grown more and more frustrated that they have stayed there. This is a direct challenge to the military.

There is also the Muslim Brotherhood's use of the language of violence and martyrdom, increasing sectarian tension emerging from Rabat Square, where this sit-in was happening, the escalation of attacks on Egypt's Coptic community. These were the kinds of things that the military could not tolerate, particularly the latter. The military has long been concerned about social cohesion in Egypt and what that might do to the stability of the country.

GREENE: Well, you said that the Brotherhood has been trying to delegitimize the process since Morsi was ousted. Their argument, of course, is that Morsi was elected in what was a legitimate political process. And I wonder if we look at the Egyptian public, is there some sympathy for Morsi and for his party since he was elected?

COOK: Well, there continues to be sympathy obviously among the Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, which is still a very large group of people in the country. But there are very many other Egyptians who believe that Morsi did very little, that the Muslim Brotherhood made a hash of the country. After he was elected, he was welcomed to office, did nothing over the course of the last year, and have grown frustrated by the political stalemate.

So in fact there is a lot of political support for the military's intervention July 3 and resetting Egypt's transition. Transition to what remains an open question. But nevertheless people are relieved that Morsi is gone and there is hope for stability going forward.

GREENE: What do you do if you're a liberal in Egypt who's committed to democracy? I mean can you both support what happened yesterday and also say that you support democracy in this country?

COOK: Well, it's hard to make a credible claim if you're an Egyptian liberal. They have really been caught in betwixt and between on this. They have hoped beyond hope that the military intervention would then result in a political process that would, in fact, put the country on the path of democracy. But, of course, we know from past experience around the world that military coups don't necessarily create environments conducive to the emergence of democracy.

But their answer is: What choice did we have? Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were working to consolidate their own power, to make it difficult for other groups to compete in the political arena.

GREENE: Let's talk about the possible consequences of an assault like this, and perhaps the likelihood that this just lights a fire among Islamists in Egypt and the Islamic world in general. I mean are we just going to see more violence going forward?

COOK: Indeed, I think it's a strong possibility that we will. There is something called the Repression Radicalization Dynamic. And one can imagine Muslim Brothers saying that they tried to play by the rules of the political game. They were shut out, shut down and now being hunted and they have no recourse but to take up arms against the state.

We've seen that before, in fact, in Egypt, in the mid-1990s. There was a low-level insurgency which killed anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people. Throughout the Arab world we've seen it in places like Algeria.

Do I think that radicals from other parts of the region will come to Egypt to take up arms? Well, there is some evidence that that might be happening in the Sinai Peninsula, which has been beyond the control of the central government for some time now. But this is largely an Egyptian story.

GREENE: Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks so much for joining us.

COOK: My great pleasure.

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