Egyptian security forces early Aug. 14 proceeded with an operation to clear Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo. Beginning at dawn, Egyptian army and police used bulldozers to disperse thousands of protesters who had camped out for six weeks in Giza's Nahda Square and at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City.
Casualty estimates vary widely depending on whether they are reported by state-run media, Muslim Brotherhood media or local observers. The state media so far claims a death toll of 13 (five of whom were security officers), with 98 injured, while the Muslim Brotherhood claims 500 dead and 9,000 injured. The operation at Nahda Square reportedly lasted three hours, while the crackdown at Rabaa al-Adawiya is still underway, with reports of clashes between security forces and protesters spreading throughout Cairo and to Alexandria and Aswan.
The military had said it would eventually clear the sit-ins with such an operation; it allowed for a weeklong diplomatic mediation and the Eid al-Fitr holiday to pass first. In sharp contrast to sit-in protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood protests were concentrated around the outskirts of Cairo and involved several thousand people. The military thus had the option of avoiding a deadly crackdown. It could have allowed the protests to languish, especially considering the Muslim Brotherhood was already facing a crisis of legitimacy among its own supporters. The military instead proceeded with a show of force designed to reinforce its credibility and demonstrate its intolerance of the street protest culture that has dominated Egypt for the past two years. The military would not have proceeded with this operation had it not felt itself capable of managing the fallout, but its credibility will still be challenged in the coming days and months.
State media reinforced the military's operation with reports that Muslim Brotherhood protesters carried weapons and launched deadly attacks on security forces and Coptic religious sites, among other allegations designed to brand the Islamist protests as militant in nature, emulating the Brotherhood's Palestinian counterparts, Hamas. Though many in Egypt are relieved to see the Muslim Brotherhood sidelined from power and are desperate to see the streets stabilized again to allow the economy to recover, the military-backed transitional government cannot escape the number of deep structural ailments afflicting Egypt — including everything from the ongoing militancy in Sinai to a critical balance of payments crisis now impacting the supply of basic staples such as bread and fuel.
The military wanted to act quickly enough against the Muslim Brotherhood to demonstrate a show of force while it still had popular backing and while former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was still the primary public scapegoat for Egypt's crisis. The military will remain the ultimate authority of the state in Egypt, but it is only a matter of time before it takes the blame for Egypt's persistent economic and political turmoil. With chances for a political reconciliation now destroyed, political unrest propagated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters and jihadist violence will start to blur.