CAIRO – Egypt entered a new phase of uncertainty Wednesday after security forces drove out supporters of President Mohammed Morsi from two sprawling encampments where they had been camped out for six weeks demanding the Islamist leader's reinstatement. The move, which left dozens of protesters dead and saw the arrest of several leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has left the fundamentalist movement dangerously isolated. It also prompted Vice President Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-reform leader in the interim government, to resign in protest over the violent crackdown as the military-backed leadership imposed a monthlong state of emergency and nighttime curfew.
The interim administration that took over after Morsi was toppled on July 3 has been warning for days that it planned to crackdown on the tent cities, which clogged intersections on opposite sides of the Egyptian capital. The government accused the protesters of frightening residents in the neighborhoods, sparking violence and disrupting traffic. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Morsi, called for mass rallies last month to show support action against the protesters. Millions turned up on July 26 to declare their support. The government later said diplomatic efforts had failed and the decision to clear the sit-ins was "irreversible." Morsi's supporters fortified their positions and even more people flooded the camps after plans for a crackdown on Monday morning were leaked to the media. Police announced they were postponing the decision but did not give a new date.
WHAT LED TO THIS?
Morsi was Egypt's first democratically elected leader after winning the first post-Hosni Mubarak presidential election with just under 52 percent of the vote. His rise to the helm of power was a sharp reversal for the Muslim Brotherhood, repressed for decades under Mubarak's rule, and it was part of a general rise to power of Islamists following the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that led to the ouster of Mubarak and autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Libya. But Morsi faced a backlash as liberal and secular activists accused him and the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power and failing to implement much-needed social and economic reforms. Morsi and his backers argued they were doomed to fail because of constant protests and efforts to undermine his government. His government also drew criticism over a series of charges and complaints against activists, journalists and TV personalities, including well-known satirist Bassem Youssef, for insulting Morsi and even sometimes for insulting Islam. An activist group called Tamarod, or Rebel in Arabic, drew millions to the streets to call for Morsi's ouster on June 30, the anniversary of his inauguration. The powerful military responded by taking Morsi into custody on July 3 and forming an interim civilian leadership.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN STICKING POINTS BLOCKING NEGOTIATIONS?
The Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to power and won a series of elections after Mubarak's ouster, backs Morsi and had vowed to maintain the protest camps until he was reinstated. The Islamists have rejected the military-backed political process, which calls for amending the constitution adopted last year and holding parliamentary and presidential elections early next year. International diplomatic efforts to promote reconciliation, including phone calls and visits by senior U.S. and European diplomats, have failed.
The interim administration and liberal and secular activists who led the drive to oust Morsi say the move against Egypt's first democratically elected president was justified because he was abusing his power and the country needed a second chance at democracy. Authorities also have cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood leaders, detaining several key figures and accusing them of inciting violence.
WHAT IS THE U.S. POSITION?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined other Western and mainly Muslim countries in condemning the violence. He said it had dealt a "serious blow" to political reconciliation efforts and urged Egypt's interim leaders to take a step back and calm the situation. But Obama administration officials signaled no change in their policy toward Egypt. Washington has avoided declaring Morsi's ouster a coup, a move that would force the administration to suspend $1.3 billion in annual military aid to the nation. White House and State Department officials said the U.S. role was largely to encourage the interim government to fulfill its promises to enact political reform.
HAS THE VIOLENCE GENERATED ANY SYMPATHY FOR MORSI'S SUPPORTERS?
Most Egyptians are Muslim, but there is widespread antipathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood among moderates who feared Morsi and his allies were trying to impose a stricter version of Islamic law in the country. Still many object to the brutal crackdown and argue stability cannot be restored without participation of Islamists in the political process. In the first sign of a crack in the government's position, Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, resigned to protest the violent assaults. ElBaradei, a former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, was named only last month as interim President Adly Mansour's deputy for foreign relations. In his resignation letter, he wrote that he is not prepared to be held responsible for a "single drop of blood," and that only more violence will result, according to a copy that was emailed to The Associated Press. He said Egypt is more polarized than when he took office.
It's hard to tell. Several more Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the powerful Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, were arrested after security forces swept away the two protest camps and the movement may struggle to regroup as pro-Morsi protesters from the camp were scattered. The government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew in a bid to stem the violence, but sporadic clashes continued through the evening. Anger over Morsi's ouster already has led to an increase in Islamic militant violence in the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel and many fear growing anger over the crackdown and deaths of scores of civilians could be exploited by extremists to stoke low-level violence there and elsewhere in the country.