This week marks the sixth anniversary of one of the most significant events in the Middle East — one that reversed the trajectory of the Arab Spring. On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military launched a coup against President Mohamed Morsi’s government, resulting in the massacre of thousands, the fleeing and exile of thousands more, and the demise of hopes that the country was on the verge of democratic rule.
Egypt’s military hijacked popular protests that were triggered in June 2013 to express discontent with the reign of Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. Morsi was subsequently arrested, tried in politicized courts and reportedly mistreated. His family maintains he was subjected to systemic medical negligence, ultimately leading to his collapse after testifying in a soundproof cage in court and subsequent death last month.
Then, last week — just days after Morsi’s tragic and untimely death — Egyptian security forces arrested prominent secular opposition figures and influencers, including former member of parliament Zyad el-Eleaimy and journalist Hossam Moa’ans, over alleged ties to Islamists. These figures are the same opposition leaders who played an instrumental role in the revolution against Hosni Mubarak and helped mobilize masses against Morsi.
These twin acts of repression by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s regime are part of the largest political crackdown in the history of modern Egypt — a crackdown that has targeted secular groups and Islamists alike. But the unprecedented levels of tyranny have not been enough to bridge the widening rift and mistrust between the two factions of Egypt’s opposition.
In fact, the differing views of the factions have become more entrenched in recent years. Each group has radically different perspectives on the past, based on polarizing ideological propaganda and emotional attachments.
The June 2013 protests epitomized both factions’ struggles. For many decades, Islamists’ political ambition was capped in parliament. When Morsi was elected, he represented something deeper than just being a president: To his base, he was the embodiment of their own success in shattering political ceilings.
Secularists, on the other hand, were considered members of a limited elite, without the ability to mobilize large numbers of constituents. And so, when they successfully mobilized in 2013 against Morsi, supporters saw it as the embodiment of their own success.
Every year since 2013, the two sides of the political opposition revisit these diverging histories, which symbolize profoundly deeper issues. The Islamists attempt to delegitimize the 2013 protests by underestimating the number of participants and exaggerating the support of the state security apparatus. In the same way, secularists attempt to delegitimize Morsi by painting him as an incompetent president who only represented Islamists. Each side plays on the other’s historical political insecurities.
Meanwhile, the Sissi regime has successfully capitalized on those very insecurities to create further divisions — and has used repression as a tool to reinforce each side’s narrative about the other. The divisive politics of blame are not new to Egypt — particularly in this context. Historically, the military has pit different factions against one another to balance power dynamics. Today, it is using similar tactics — such as demonizing opposition groups and offering preferential treatment in sentencing and prison conditions to one faction over the other — to deepen the decades-long conflict between secularists and Islamists.
Yet what secularists and political Islamists need to understand is that, even though they have significant differences in ideology and vision for the country’s future, these differences are not existential. These groups actually have more in common than either side would like to admit: a common oppressor and a shared dream of having a stake in shaping the future of their country.
In the midst of unwavering regime repression, both factions have to realize that the political reality does not afford them the luxury of engaging in theoretical disagreements and contradicting narratives of the past. Now more than ever, they must find common ground to build a free, inclusive and democratic future where they all coexist.
Egyptians should realize that they need an environment of freedom, transparency and the rule of law to set the record of the past straight. Attempts by both factions to capture the political vacuum by sidelining the other will only prolong the life of the Sissi regime. Only when Egyptian politicians and factions set aside their differences and prioritize the salvation of their country will they able to free themselves of the demons of the past and inspire the world, as they did once before.
Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and founder of the Freedom Initiative.