“I’m afraid there’s no such thing as foreign intervention in Egypt to establish peace,” says Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor in the Centre for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University.
The current protests are a response to the events of July 3, when the Egyptian military deposed democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, who heads the Muslim Brotherhood party.
Clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the interim military government have escalated in recent weeks. At least 638 people have died in the last couple of days according to Egypt's health ministry; the Muslim Brotherhood says it is closer to 2,600.
Obama condemns military crackdown
On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the U.S. “strongly condemns the steps taken by Egypt’s military” in recent days and announced that he was canceling joint U.S.-Egypt military exercises next month.
Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, has also voiced his concern over the violence, saying the military and the Muslim Brotherhood “must immediately sit down together, reconcile their differences and work tirelessly to halt this deadly standoff.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Morsi ally, went a step further, agitating for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the crisis.
Egypt is the world’s most populous Arab country and the cultural heart of the Middle East, and its stability is highly important to the region as a whole, says Hassan-Yari.
While there is much talk about the potential of foreign intervention, outside countries “are involved in this conflict, and have been involved in this conflict, from the beginning,” says Jacob Shapiro, a Middle East analyst for global intelligence firm Stratfor.
Shapiro says this involvement has been largely behind the scenes, and skewed to the different factions. For the brief period when Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power, countries such as Turkey and Qatar provided aid and diplomatic support.
As soon as Morsi was deposed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates came through with billions in aid for the interim military government, says Shapiro.
He argues that most Arab countries, as well as the U.S., are pro-military and would prefer Egypt remain out of the hands of an Islamist government.
Shapiro says that while some U.S. officials, such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have visited Cairo, it's unlikely to lead to sustained peace-making efforts. "If you’re talking about any meaningful escalation [of diplomacy], I don’t see that," he says.
The region is also divided. In addition to Turkey, Islamists are in power in Tunisia to the east and Sudan to the south.
Tunisian President Rachid Ghannouchi sent a message today "to our brothers and sisters in Egypt" that says, "you will defeat dictatorship and your peaceful struggle will defeat blood and bullets." But he called on Brotherhood supporters not to react with violence.
Hassan-Yari says other nearby countries are either fearful of greater Islamist influence in the region (Saudi Arabia, UAE), or are too small or fractured to have much say in the affairs of other countries (Jordan, Syria).
Calling a coup a 'coup'
In appealing to the UN, Turkey’s Erdogan berated Western powers for ignoring the bloodshed.
“Those who ignore the coup and don't even display the honorable behavior of calling a coup a ‘coup,’ share in the guilt of the massacre of those children,” he said.
Erdogan’s comment was a none-too-subtle shot at the U.S., which has not called Morsi’s ouster a coup. In doing so, the Americans would run afoul of U.S. law, if they provide military aid “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'etat or decree."
While some commentators have criticized Obama for not punishing the Egyptian military, others say the U.S. is in a tricky position.
“Alienating the Egyptians one way or the other is very difficult, which is why I think they are very prudent in Washington,” says Hassan-Yari. “[The Americans] don’t have the liberty and the freedom to basically condemn or suspend any relations.”
Some commentators say that by revoking $1.5 billion in military aid, the U.S. would send a strong message to the Egyptians. But it could hurt the U.S. even more, says Mohammad Fadel, a Middle East expert in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. He says the aid to Egypt is “basically a subsidy to U.S. military contractors.”
He doesn’t believe that the money matters much to the Egyptian government, anyway.
“It’s too small an amount to make any difference to the calculations of the Egyptian military,” says Fadel. “They got 12 billion on day one of the coup from the Gulf countries.”
No compromise in sight
The clashes in recent weeks are a manifestation of the deep divisions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim military government, says Hassan-Yari.
The Brotherhood says the only acceptable solution to the current violence is the reinstatement of Morsi as president. For the Egyptian army, however, “that chapter is closed,” Hassan-Yari argues.
The military has said that during his time in office, Morsi was unable to improve the economy or unite Egyptians, and that going forward, the country must review the constitution before proceeding to another round of parliamentary and presidential elections.
Because of these deep philosophical divisions, it is unlikely that any outside power can exercise much sway, says Hassan-Yari.
In lieu of any productive foreign involvement, there has been rampant speculation that the situation could devolve into civil war. Fadel says it’s unlikely, because the Muslim Brotherhood cannot match the military in terms of firepower.
“What I think is very likely is endemic civil strife, endemic oppression – the kind of dirty war that you saw in Latin America in the ‘70s. I think that’s where Egypt is going.”