Egyptian protesters set ball rolling
By Victor Kotsev
It is too early to call the end of the ascendancy of political Islam in the Middle East, though some analysts are already saying this out loud. But the millions - as many as 14 million, according to the army - who took to the streets in Egypt on Sunday in protest of Muslim Brotherhood rule sent a powerful message that is bound to reverberate throughout the region, even if it will take some time to gauge its precise significance and the clearest part is that the most populous Arab country is on the brink of state failure.
A military coup may or may not be in the works - a few days ago, the army threatened to step in if the politicians failed to impose order, and there is anything but order in Egypt, where deadly clashes, lynchings and abductions have recently become the
norm. Army helicopters reportedly showered the 500,000 anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir square with flags in just the latest of many signs that the generals are positioning vis-a-vis current Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in much the same way as they did with respect to former President Hosni Mubarak, whom they ousted in a soft coup in 2011.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that anybody - even the military-would be willing to rule a failed state. My Asia Times Online colleague David Goldman has time and again pointed out just how bad the state of Egypt's finances is, and now we have started hearing similar appraisals also from top opposition figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei - who explained in a Foreign Policy Magazine article that "you can't eat Sharia." 
Just days ago, the Egyptian government sought to borrow another US$500 million from Saudi Arabia in order to fill the gaping holes in its budget. In this context the news that the government temporarily restocked Cairo with gasoline products in a bid to stem popular discontent appears rather petty.
Then again, if Morsi can take most of the blame for Egypt's failure, the army would probably be happy to assist him. The bitter rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, the two most powerful forces on the Egyptian political scene, runs back decades. Despite Morsi's purge of several top generals last year, the army is deeply embedded in Egyptian society, and remains in control of much of the country's economy.
It is hardly a secret that the military has been waiting for the Brotherhood to discredit itself in order to take back the reins of the country, which it held until Mubarak, a decorated former air force general, induced with his authoritarian tendencies and economic failures the wrath of much of the population - and also, for different reasons (rumor has it due to his attempts to pass the rule down to his son, a civilian), of many officers.
Whether the generals will decide that their moment is now, remains a mystery. As Samer al-Atrush, a reporter who writes for the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers from Cairo, tweeted Sunday evening, "now we're back to the days of compulsively refreshing military Facebook pages."
The military's hand could be forced by the growing chaos. Earlier this year, the army was called to interfere when police failed to subdue riots in the city of Port Said over the death sentences of 21 soccer fans who were accused of starting a melee in 2012 that killed 74. Though Sunday's protests were less violent by comparison, at least five people were shot death in clashes between government supporters and opponents in the countryside, and hundreds were wounded.
Eight others were killed in the previous days, and by most accounts, nerves are frayed in the extreme. "Felt a bit like a slice of world gone mad in Tahrir tonight," tweeted Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor. "Really chaotic as I left, in a way it never was during [the] anti Mubarak uprising."
Unconfirmed reports of two deaths in a shootout in Cairo circulated on Sunday night, as well as rumors of a "white Suzuki minivan which is kidnapping women around downtown." A number of government supporters were arrested earlier with firearms  and others had organized vigilante groups. For their part, protesters threw Molotov cocktails and stones, torching several offices of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Construction and Development Party.
Gunmen are believed to be active in both camps. Top religious authorities are warning of a "civil war".
That is hardly an overstatement. Not only the political, but also the religious peace in the country is gravely threatened. A week ago, at least four Shi'ites - a community that numbers several hundred thousand people - died after a mob dragged them out of a house and lynched them in Cairo. Christian Copts - a larger minority that makes up at least 10% of the population - are also periodically targeted and killed in clashes. More than 100,000 of them are believed to have left the country since the 2011 revolution. 
And while the future of Egypt is uncertain, to put it mildly, the implications for the entire region, already destabilized by the Arab Spring, could be severe. The Sinai peninsula, which borders on Israel, has slid out of control over the past two years. Neighboring Libya is also in a state of chaos, anchoring smuggling and jihadi networks stretching all the way from war-torn Mali. It is not difficult to imagine a vast corridor of extremism and lawlessness stretching from the African Atlantic coast to the Red Sea.
Among other repercussions from the crisis, American Middle Eastern policy could also suffer badly, as the anti-American slogans and posters at the protests demonstrated. The American administration has tacitly supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for the past two years, ostensibly on the twin premises that it can do little to stop their rise and that a moderate form of political Islam could successfully counter Muslim extremism in the region. Ironically, it has come to be loathed by the secular opposition of Egypt in the process, and to be seen as an ally of a regime that tramples civil liberties and exhibits strong authoritarian tendencies.
While it is hard to say what exactly is next for Egypt and the region, the future appears bleak.