Cairo has always been a popular site to mediate the many disputes of the Middle East. A regional crossroads and the home of the Arab League, Egypt has hosted numerous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well as intra-Palestinian talks between rival factions Fatah and Hamas. In 2003, it served as the nerve center for last-minute attempts by the Arab League and Gulf states to convince Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to seek exile ahead of the eventual U.S.-led invasion.
But the past month of political turmoil following the military’s ousting of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency has flipped that script. Now international envoys are packing into Cairo from multiple directions in order to mediate the Egyptian crisis. The past few days have seen overlapping visits from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, U.S. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, E.U. envoy Bernardino León and the Foreign Ministers of both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In each case the foreign envoys have crisscrossed the capital, moving from presidential palaces to prison warden’s offices seeking to find some sort of acceptable resolution that will heal the rifts between the military-backed transitional government and Morsi’s marginalized and embittered Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi supporters continue to rally in mass numbers at two separate sites in Cairo, vowing to continue their civil disobedience campaign until what they consider a blatant coup is reversed and Morsi returned to power. The military and police have issued multiple warnings of a looming crackdown to clear the sit-ins, but a shaky peace has held for the past week as the negotiators went to work.
But so far, the flurry of diplomatic activity has failed to produce signs of even a road map toward reconciliation. Amid conflicting reports and denials over who met who and who proposed what, the past week’s events may have even muddied the waters further, in the eyes of some observers.
“It’s difficult to know what’s going on because we don’t know what’s really being said between the Brotherhood and the foreigners,” says Hussein Gohar, head of international relations for the Social Democrat Party — one of the leading members of the Egyptian ruling coalition and the party of Interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy. “It’s a little confusing and I don’t think we’re getting anywhere.”
If anything, the mediation efforts have served to emphasize just how far apart the two sides remain. The Brotherhood continues to insist that any resolution begins with Morsi’s return to power. Brotherhood officials have consistently dropped hints that they would consider a scenario in which a restored President Morsi handed off some of his duties or announced fresh presidential elections. But in the eyes of the transitional government, any talk of a Morsi return is an absolute nonstarter.
“We’re long past the idea of Morsi returning in any form. As long as they insist on that, then there are no negotiations,” says Gohar. Many of the other core Brotherhood demands seem equally impossible to realize — not least the insistence of Brotherhood leaders that they would never join a unity government that includes Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the army man who they consider guilty of treason for toppling Morsi, then his Commander in Chief.
The simultaneous visits of both Burns and the two Senators represent a significant shift on the part of the U.S. — an active re-engagement after several weeks of semantic gymnastics over how to define this crucial phase of Egypt’s revolution. The U.S. government is deeply distrusted by both players in the dispute and seemed, until recently, to be willing to take a backseat and endorse the E.U. mediation efforts.
But the renewed U.S. engagement hasn’t brought much more clarity to the situation. Last week, Burns’ boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, made the strongest comments yet in favor of the post-Morsi government while on a visit to Pakistan, stating that the Egyptian military’s intervention was aimed at “restoring democracy.”
On Tuesday however, McCain and Graham seemed to be singing from a completely different song sheet. The Senators openly labeled Morsi’s ouster as a “coup” — a word the White House and State Department have studiously avoided for weeks and one that, when invoked, draws the ire of the transitional government and its supporters.
Still, McCain stated that cutting off the U.S.’s $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt — an action mandated by current U.S. law in the event of a coup against a democratically elected government — would be “the wrong signal at the wrong time.” But Graham, in comments to reporters on Tuesday, offered a blunt assessment of the Egyptian playing field — one that directly challenges the transitional government’s statements of its own legitimacy. “The people who are in charge were not elected. The people who were elected are in jail,” he said. “The status quo is not acceptable.”
All of this shuttle diplomacy takes place under a looming threat of a bloody crackdown that could drive the Muslim Brotherhood back underground — where it spent much of the past 50 years. Part of the reason the envoys have had a peaceful week in which to operate may be due more to the nature of the Islamic calendar than to any realistic prospect of reconciliation. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends on Thursday and the final 10 days of the month are considered particularly sacred — and therefore a terrible time for internecine strife. Ramadan culminates in the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, one of the holiest periods in the Muslim calendar. Next week, once the holidays have come and gone, the prospects of a final — and inevitably violent — security push to clear the Brotherhood protests and end the stalemate will rise.
Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.
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