As the Egyptian crisis unfolds, memories of another violent scar seared into the memory of modern China — in the form of a four-second view of the infamous ‘tank man’ photograph, in which a lone unarmed man stands before four tanks — was presented by Cirque du Soleil during its performance in Beijing last week. CNN reported that the Chinese audience let out a collective gasp at the iconic photo of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The parallels between the violence continuing right now and the killings of student activists a quarter of a century ago appear to be obvious. With the death toll rapidly rising, the two humanitarian disasters are already in the same scope of hundreds, if not thousands, killed. The massacres seem to share the common characteristic of a government violently cracking down on its people.
The problem with this comparison is that the forces lined up against each other fall along social fault lines in the Egyptian case. When the military cracked down, it commanded the tacit understanding if not support of the secular, Christian, and moderate Muslim parts of society opposed to deposed President Mohammed Morsi. This is an ‘identity crisis’ haunting Egypt.
By drawing on the destructive power of factions, the Egyptian military is perhaps trying to crush its long-standing enemy. If it dispatched the Brotherhood as a political force, the military could perhaps cement its hold on decades of power arrangements.
The determination of the military to destroy the political manifestation of Islam is given proof by Prime Minister Hezam el-Beshawi throwing out the idea of outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood on Saturday. Commitment to civilian rule, in spite of the satisfaction of seeing one’s opponent fall in an extra-judicial fashion, is critical to preventing similar crises in the future. The Egyptian military’s return to power has entrenched the unfortunate legacy of strongman rule in the Arab world’s most populous nation after a single brief year. Absolute subjugation of the armed forces to civilian control is necessary for a democracy to maintain its liberty. Military force must be harnessed by democracies to protect themselves, but the military must never usurp the dominion of its rightful master.
Various loyalties among the people must be resolved in a way that guarantees the rights of the minority. Factions are a necessary evil of a republic, feeding on the air of liberty to become dangerous forces of strife between groups of citizens whose passions and interests conflict with those of other groups. US founding father James Madison is believed to have expounded on the topic in Federalist No. 10, a treatise on the danger of factions.
The only solution to the intractable problem is focusing on controlling the effects of factions, Madison believed.
While we don’t have to follow Madison’s theory through to its support for strong central government power and indirect representation, his identification of the problem of factions is applicable in the Egyptian case.
“The army and the police will strike hard and ordinary people will be supportive,” The Associated Press quoted Egyptian rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid as saying, as an example of how many Egyptians actually are indifferent to the fates of those persecuted and killed by the military government, even as the international community is united in its criticism of violence against protesters.
Complicated societal dynamics involving pan-Arabism, nationalism and Muslim identities in Egypt’s modern history meant that citizens’ loyalties were in a state of flux. “The moves from one identity to another, from Arab to Egyptian to Muslim, reflect citizens’ assessment of their chances to reach their goals.” Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami says.
When the military claimed to help the people solve their discontent by overthrowing Morsi, what it was actually doing was prolonging the grievance of an opposing faction in society. Military intervention exacerbated the conflict between factions, escalating conflict into deadly confrontation.
In effect, Egypt’s strongman al-Sissi’s actions a month ago demonstrated how Madison’s words ring true. The military ignored the presence of factions by pretending to stand on the side of a “people” which does not exist as a single, easily defined entity. Ignoring the complexity of negotiations and debate, Egypt has fallen deeper into the quagmire of unresolved identity bombshells.
The China Post/ANN