Egypt: The Dangers and Limits of Intensifying Violence

5 MINS READJul 8, 2013 | 14:24 GMT
Egypt: The Dangers and Limits of Intensifying Violence
Egyptian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood clash with police outside a Republican Guards facility in Cairo early July 8.

The latest deadly clashes in Cairo are likely to undermine the Egyptian military's plans for the country and push it toward greater violence. The political unrest in Egypt sparked by the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi worsened when at least 42 supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood were killed and another 300 were wounded in a confrontation with security forces outside the Republican Guards officers' club July 8.

It is not entirely clear what led to the shooting, with the military reporting that pro-Morsi "terrorists" sought to climb the walls of the Republican Guards headquarters where Morsi is being held and the Brotherhood claiming that the attack was unprovoked. The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, called for a general uprising in Egypt and called on the international community to intervene to prevent further "massacres." The military also closed the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters, claiming that stockpiled weapons were found inside.

The country's second-largest Islamist group, the Hizb al-Nour party, which has been siding with the opposition and endorsed the military's post-Morsi roadmap, announced that it was pulling out of the political process after the killings. A day earlier, al-Nour issued a statement opposing the moves to appoint Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the main secularist umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, as prime minister. The decision by al-Nour — already uncomfortable with the direction of the roadmap — to pull out from the political process after the July 8 killings shows how the political landscape is polarizing along ideological lines.

At this early stage, al-Nour's decision could be a tactical one, designed to manage an increasingly difficult situation and/or extract concessions from the military authorities. However, it works to the advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood's strategic imperative of trying to prevent the roadmap from succeeding. The Brotherhood understands that it is unlikely to be able to restore the Morsi presidency and is thus trying to create a situation in which the military cannot impose a new political order.

The Brotherhood's central leader, Mohammed Badie, issued a statement that military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was pushing Egypt into a Syria-like situation, and the movement has called for an uprising to resist the military coup. However, the Brotherhood is not interested in an armed conflict. Rather, such statements and protests are geared toward creating a gridlock, where the Brotherhood can force the military and its political opponents into negotiations with the Islamist movement. The Brotherhood is attempting to extract concessions to minimize its political losses and eventually re-enter the process without looking as though it had accepted the coup.

Such a strategy involves weeks, if not months, of civil unrest, which entails considerable risks. Though the Brotherhood is a well-disciplined organization, some of its elements could be radicalized by the Morsi ouster and the clashes that have been taking place since. Already there are reports in the Egyptian press about the formation of an Ikhwan Ahrar Front that has criticized Badie and other senior Brotherhood leaders, blaming them for the 42 deaths. Moreover, there is no shortage of more right-wing Islamist elements that can seize the opportunity to push for an armed struggle. Attacks have already occurred in the Sinai, and a jihadist outfit called Ansar al-Shariah announced its formation.

Indeed, al Qaeda-style jihadists who have long condemned democracy as un-Islamic are seizing upon Morsi's ouster to reiterate that the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in mainstream politics cannot succeed, and change can only be brought about through armed struggle, as in Syria. This is a problem for both the Brotherhood and its opponents, as neither wants jihadists to exploit their enmity. There is considerable talk among political pundits about present-day Egypt going the way of Algeria during the 1990s, when a nearly decade-long insurgency killed as many as 200,000 people after the 1992 military coup annulled the elections in which an Islamist movement was poised to win overwhelmingly.

However, there are many differences between Egypt and Algeria. Algeria's Front Islamique de Salut, which was headed for an electoral victory, was a new party formed hurriedly and serving as an umbrella for multiple Islamist currents — the core of which were Salafists (including many jihadists). In sharp contrast, Egypt's Brotherhood has been around for 85 years and is a well-organized group that has long been on the path of mainstream politics. This is why jihadism, though born in Egypt, never displaced mainstream Islamism despite the decades-long suppression of the Brotherhood at the hands of the autocratic regimes during the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak presidencies.

Furthermore, Egypt's two main jihadist groups, Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaah al-Islamiyah, have long renounced violence and in fact adopted the Brotherhood approach in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising that ousted Mubarak. Therefore, it is unlikely that transnational jihadists will be able to steer Egypt toward a civil war like Algeria's during the 1990s or post-Arab Spring Syria's. That said, Egypt is likely to see its share of violence (in many cases in the form of militant attacks) as a result of many other factors. Fighting is likely to continue and escalate along ideological lines with selective engagement by the military, which may or may not distinguish between the Brotherhood and the more radical elements. Moreover, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins at sundown July 8. Ramadan generally motivates Muslims — especially Islamists — to strive harder for their causes and makes it easier to mobilize their followers, though activities during this time are more likely after sundown, when Muslims break their daily fasts.

Conversely, the Brotherhood's use of inflammatory rhetoric in an already charged atmosphere in an effort to mobilize its supporters against the coup will only give the more radical elements openings to exploit and could blur the line between the Brotherhood's cadre and more radical forces. With the Brotherhood's senior leadership in jail, the mainstream Islamist movement may not be able to control the unrest it is currently fomenting. Jihadist forces, realizing that the window of opportunity for them is narrow, would like to prevent any compromise between the military and the Brotherhood in the short term. Therefore, the duration and intensity of the crisis in Egypt will depend upon the Brotherhood and the military's ability (or lack thereof) to reach a political compromise.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the location of the July 8 confrontation between protesters and security forces.

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