Egypt Needs Truth and Reconciliation

The dream for democracy in Egypt is not dead, despite bloody clashes on the streets of Cairo.  The millions of Egyptians who swarmed into Tahrir Square in January 2011 demanding that Mubarak step down, and then again in June 2013 asking for the overthrow of Morsi, have learned how to use “people power.”  Therefore, it would be difficult for another autocratic regime (whether military or Islamist) to succeed in ruling Egypt for an extended period of time.  Egyptians, especially youth, will not stand for it.  Their goals of economic opportunity, political freedom, social justice and human dignity cannot be achieved under autocracy. 

It is too early to declare the defeat of Egypt’s democratic movement.  The youth of Tahrir Square are still there and they represent the majority of Egyptians.  Opinion polls indicate that 67 percent of Egyptians feel that democracy is the preferred form of government.

But the violence between pro- and anti- Muslim Brotherhood forces that is threatening to unravel the very fabric of Egyptian society must stop.  Of course, ending violence is one of those things that are much easier said than done.  Feelings are running high on both sides.  Furthermore, with every new drop of blood that is spilled, anger and frustration are rising.  Each camp is accusing the other of crimes and atrocities.  Judging by the number of victims among the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as among the security forces, it would appear that both sides’ accusations may have some truth in them.

Calls for revenge can be heard all over Egypt.  The side that will win this conflict will almost surely seek “justice for the martyrs.”  Operationally, this means that large numbers of people on the losing side will end up in jail and, as of now, the Muslim Brotherhood is the losing side.

Brotherhood supporters are highly committed and seem willing to die in defense of what they consider to be democratic legitimacy. They are probably capable of continuing to organize protests in different places across the country for a long time.

However, it is unlikely that either side will achieve a lasting victory.  The army and police are well-armed and seem determined to use their weapons against a group that they consider to be threatening Egypt’s national interests and security.  They are also supported by huge segments of the population, probably the majority.  However, the Muslim Brotherhood is well organized and also enjoys widespread support.  Brotherhood supporters are highly committed and seem willing to die in defense of what they consider to be democratic legitimacy.  They are probably capable of continuing to organize protests in different places across the country for a long time. 

The minimum level of consensus that is needed to put in place new democratic institutions would be hard to achieve under current circumstances.  The interim government will find it difficult to properly implement its roadmap, which includes revising the constitution and organizing free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in less than one year.  It first needs to take steps to reduce tensions and the polarization of Egyptian society.  Otherwise, it will end up with a non-inclusive process, very similar to the one that ultimately caused Morsi’s downfall.

Creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (modeled on the one set up by President Mandela and Bishop Tutu after the fall of apartheid in South Africa) could be one way of easing tensions.  The objective of this commission would be to discover and reveal crimes perpetrated by all sides over the last two years and, by doing so, help achieve national reconciliation.  More than 20 countries all around the world have followed the South African example and set up such commissions to deal with crises and transitional situations.

Setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would raise many difficult questions.  These include questions regarding the membership of the commission, as well as its relationship with the criminal justice system.  However, Egypt has not yet reached the stage where such questions are even relevant.

The real question is whether Egyptian society wants national reconciliation.  Today, the answer appears to be negative.  Opponents and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue demonizing one another, and violence between them is becoming commonplace.  Neither side has shown sufficient willingness to compromise.  But inevitably, some day (hopefully soon) they will come to the realization that they need to find a way of living together in a democratic country.  When that day comes, Egypt may need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.