Egypt finds itself again in the grip of a high-stakes political poker standoff, this time between the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The authorities hold the "big stack." They are in power, with the backing of Egypt's administrative bureaucracy, most political parties, the media, and military and security forces. They also have much of the Brotherhood's leadership in detention, and have frozen their assets.
But politically both sides have been losing ground.
A large public majority seems to mostly still feel the Brotherhood made this showdown inevitable. Millions of Egyptians clearly remember why they took to the streets demanding former President Mohamad Morsi fold. And many blame the Brotherhood, more than the authorities, for the ensuing violence and instability that has rocked Egypt's cities and Sinai Peninsula since his downfall.
Nonetheless, the crackdown on the Brotherhood, both legally and physically, has alienated some initial supporters of the military's intervention. While the Brotherhood's narrative about "massacres" of "peaceful protesters" seems to have considerably more adherents in the West than in Egypt, the new authorities are also increasingly seen by Egyptians as having behaved in a heavy-handed manner and, worse, failing to restore order. Buyer's remorse is already emerging, and this is likely to only increase.
More than 80 years in opposition has prepared the Brotherhood to be at its most effective in the role of "the victim." Their “dominated hand” is expertise at milking sympathy – even outside of their own highly disciplined ranks – for the travails they suffer at the hands of any government crackdown. Morsi's own two last speeches in office were characterized by repeated vows to cash out by "shedding his own blood," and "sacrificing his own life."
Of course it's never the leadership of any extreme, vanguardist revolutionary movement that actually volunteers for martyrdom. It's always the rank-and-file that is food for powder. An estimated 150 pro-Morsi protesters have been killed in violent clashes with the police and security forces, who themselves lost an estimated 20 or so fatalities.
But there is a growing sense that the new government may be overplaying its hand by cracking down too harshly for the taste of many Egyptians, and through the threat the Brotherhood can "bleed its chips" by persisting in promoting an anarchical and violent atmosphere.
By playing, and in some senses even being, the victim, the Brotherhood is gaining sympathy, but not renewed legitimacy. Even those who are critical of, or in some cases repulsed by, the crackdown aren't more impressed by the Brotherhood so much as they are dismayed by the government's conduct.
And the government may be losing some degree of legitimacy, but not authority. Egyptians are still looking to the state and the military to restore order and normalcy to the country.
If we have entered into an exchange of mutual losses for both the authorities and the Brotherhood, there's no doubt that the government and military are much better able to sustain such damage. They have a degree of support and respect in the public that the Brotherhood simply doesn’t. And this time, the army has wisely decided to stay behind the scenes and allow others, including politicians and judges, at least ostensibly, to take the leading role.
The new government's position is clear: they will not brook unrest, violence, or rioting from supporters of the former president, whether in Egypt’s cities or in Sinai. But they seem and should be willing to try to find a formula to reincorporate the Brotherhood and its political party into the new system.
The Brotherhood has been issuing a "crying call" suit for peace, first privately, and now publicly. At the same time, they have been pursuing a parallel strategy of destabilizing Egyptian society through protests and, at least proxy, violence. The Brotherhood knows that its fundamental position that there must be a return to the status quo ante, Morsi's presidency, is completely out of the question. The problem is, how to broker an arrangement between two sides so diametrically opposed in a country so deeply divided.
International mediation is ongoing, but still fruitless. The Arab states, including Qatar, and the whole world, have formally recognized the legitimacy of the new government. The problem is how to get the Brotherhood to do the same, and agree to terms for going forward. A compromise might involve ministerial positions for Brotherhood members, or buy-in to a transitional plan involving new elections in the near future.
The Brotherhood has to face the fact that in the foreseeable future it won't be returning to power. Other Egyptians have to face the fact the Brotherhood isn't going away.
The prospects for Islamists around the Middle East will be powerfully influenced by how both sides play their hands, and whether Egyptians can find a compromise, or will persist with their present double-down.