Mohammed Mursi

Threat of civil war as fractured Egypt slips towards the abyss

Threat of civil war grows, with schism in Egyptian society cemented by deadly Cairo crackdown that turned political stand-off into bloody feud

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 August, 2013, 3:26am

With astonishing speed, Egypt has moved from a nation in crisis to one in real danger of slipping into a prolonged bout of violence or even civil war.

It has become increasingly polarised since the Islamists rose to power after the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

Fault lines touching key and potentially explosive issues such as identity, the rights of Christians and other minorities, and democratic values have never been greater.

The Muslim Brotherhood and their hardline allies stand at one end of a bitter stand-off with secularists, liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians.

That schism grew after President Mohammed Mursi, Egypt's first democratically elected leader, was ousted in the July 3 military coup.

But it was the deadly police raids on Wednesday - with armoured bulldozers and members of the security forces ploughing through two protest camps - that will be remembered as a turning point when what had been primarily a political stand-off erupted into bloodshed.

"The spark of civil war is out," wrote Islamist columnist Fahmy Howeidy in Thursday's edition of the independent al-Shorouk daily. "The nation is on the edge of an abyss."

Adding to the mix is the branding by the state media of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as "terrorists" and growing calls for the authorities to take a tougher approach.

"The army and the police will strike hard and ordinary people will be supportive," said rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid.

To such observers, it is beyond doubt that a majority of Egyptians support going after the Brotherhood and its hardline allies. Millions took to the streets for days prior to the July 3 coup to call on Mursi to step down, angry over what they saw as efforts to monopolise power for himself and the Brotherhood.

They also condemned his failure to implement crucial social and economic reforms and his public quarrels with the judiciary, media, military and police.

The mass protests turned into celebrations on the day he was forced out. And a similar number responded to a call by military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to take to the streets on July 26 to show support for his moves to tackle "violence and potential terrorism".

The military and police have also gone after the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups on the legal front, arresting dozens, including senior leaders.

State-run television and newspapers, meanwhile, are filled with commentators and other content full of anti-Brotherhood sentiment.

They often portray Islamists as enemies of the people and tap into nationalistic fervour by alleging that the Brotherhood is a violent group that is secretly enlisting foreign help against the rest of Egyptians. A backlash against Mohamed ElBaradei's decision to resign as interim vice-president to protest against the violence illustrated the depth of the antipathy to the Brotherhood and its allies.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former director of the UN nuclear agency said he quit because he did not want to be held responsible for bloodshed.

"It has become difficult for me to continue to take responsibility for decisions I disapprove of, and I fear their consequences," he said in his letter of resignation.

"I regret that those who benefited today are the proponents of violence, terror and the more extreme groups, and you will remember my words to you."

His resignation earned him public rebuke from Tamarod, the youth group that engineered the mass protests preceding Mursi's downfall.

The group said he was dodging his responsibility at a time when his services were needed.

Even the umbrella of opposition groups he led during Mursi's year in power regretted his decision and bemoaned that he did not bother to consult it beforehand.

A front-page editorial in the state-owned al-Akhbar daily on Thursday said ElBaradei's resignation "amounts to a breach of his position and, consequently, is a case of treason that should not be allowed to pass without accountability".

In anticipation of mass protests by Brotherhood supporters yesterday, Tamarod, or Rebel, has called on Egyptians to form popular committees to counter any violence by the Islamists during the demonstrations, proposing a scenario that places rivals face-to-face on the streets with a chance of violence breaking out.

"Sure civil war is a possibility," said Michael Hanna, an expert on Egypt from the New York-based Century Foundation. "It will be bad, with suicide bombings and assassinations, but not necessarily another Syria or Iraq."