Moreover, the Egyptian military has gained more power than the 1954 junta — not just arms and control of state institutions, but also crowds and media cheering for more repression, and unlike in 1954, the army is not divided (at least not yet).
However, supporters of the deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi are not without their own sources of power. Their mobilization capacity is high. On Friday last week, Cairo was paralyzed, despite an almost complete lack of coverage by local media outlets. Ramadan — now underway — is mobilization-friendly. After sunset, there is a common program. Observant Muslims gather at sundown for iftar (breakfast), followed by evening prayers, tarawih (longer prayers, including a short sermon), social interaction, qiyyam (another late-night prayer), suhur (another collective meal) and then morning prayers.
The last 10 days of Ramadan are i‘tikaf (collective seclusion), during which worshipers gather and spend nights in mosques and open areas. Overall, the socio-religious culture of Ramadan can help keep the Brotherhood’s mobilization of its supporters alive for a while.
This brings us to the junta’s tactics to force demobilization.
Since 2011, the army’s principal strategy has been to make promises and issue threats, which are enforced by shooting live rounds and/or tear gas. These tactics were used, for example, against Christian demonstrators in October 2011 (28 dead, 212 injured), non-Islamist youth in November 2011 (51 dead, more than 1,000 injured) and again in December 2011 (seven dead).
This month’s massacre was by far the worst (103 deaths so far and more than 1,000 injured). The army’s goal was not only to intimidate Morsi’s supporters, but also to disrupt their calculations.
The junta wants its responses to remain unpredictable and to demonstrate its willingness to use extreme violence, but such tactics during Ramadan can be problematic, given the potential negative reaction of junior army officers and ordinary soldiers. Mutiny is a possibility.
Any resolution of the current crisis should aim to save the remnants of the only gains made so far in Egypt’s revolution — basic freedoms and democratic institutions. That will require ceasing violent repression, stopping propaganda and incitement in pro-junta media and at pro-Morsi protests, and trust-building measures.
A credible guarantor, possibly the administration of US President Barack Obama, needs to be heavily involved in this process, given the absence of trust among Egypt’s main political actors (indeed, every institution is politicized and willing to cheat if it can). Finally, a referendum on any final deal is essential.
In short, the credibility of ballots and democracy must be restored in Egypt (and throughout the region) — bullets and violence must not be allowed to rule.
Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in security studies and Middle East politics at the University of Exeter and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate