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    Middle East
     Aug 19, '13

Egypt faces insurgency
By Victor Kotsev

With over 800 people killed - according to the official figures - in just a few days and scenes of burning corpses on the streets, armed mobs torching churches and dozens of detainees dying in mysterious circumstances in jail, the specter of a low-intensity insurgency hangs over Egypt.

Meanwhile, an incredibly broad coalition of critics of democracy in the Middle East has taken the center-stage, serving as a cover for the lethal methods of the army but also raising fundamental questions about the costs of a direct path to democracy.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's pledged commitment to non-violence, the Islamists are becoming ever more radicalized by the crackdown and both sides have made a series of grave mistakes

that portend a vicious circle of chaos and violence. Besides the liberal use of firearms on both sides, their rhetoric is stiffening by the day, with the Brotherhood currently accusing the military of committing "a new Holocaust" [1] and the generals threatening to outlaw the organization once again (it was banned until the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011).

Not so long ago, in fact, Egypt in fact experienced a protracted insurgency. Throughout the 1990s, Islamists staged a long series of bloody attacks on security forces and foreign tourists, as well as on government officials and Christian Copts. The past few days have produced a number of similar scenes, and many analysts - such as NBC's veteran correspondent Richard Engel - caution that once again "Egypt has all the ingredients for an insurgency". [2]

Some, such as US Senator John McCain in a recent interview, say that even a civil war may follow, along the lines of that Algeria experienced two decades ago, where some 100,000-200,000 people died. But as Engel and others argue, a lower-intensity violent insurgency is much more likely to take place under the current circumstances.

As the body count grows, both sides will find it more difficult to back off. Nor do they seem to have much will to do so. According to a recent New York Times report, Egypt's military leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has fallen under the influence of a hardline faction of the military, "[a]mong them ... Gen Mohammed al-Tohami, a mentor and father figure to General Sisi and now head of the intelligence service, and Gen Mahmoud Hegazy, the general's protege and chosen successor as head of military intelligence." [3]

Some military analysts believe that the Egyptian military is keen to end the clashes quickly and is using deadly force because of this. [4]

But while the blame game about who is responsible for the ongoing bloodshed is only just beginning, the basic rationale of the military for attacking the protest camps last Wednesday was likely fairly simple and widespread among security establishments around the world.

Two months ago, during the Gezi park protests in Istanbul, a police source in a neighboring Balkan country attempted to explain to me the ferocity of his Turkish colleagues in the following way: any space outside the control of the state is considered a hotbed of anarchy that has the potential to generate further zones of lawlessness, a tumor of sorts in the body of the state.

The same logic, taken to an extreme, appears to guide the calculations of the Egyptian military and police authorities as they mercilessly shoot their way through any pockets of opposition that could actually or theoretically threaten their rule.

Max Weber, a founding father of the discipline of sociology who died almost 100 years ago, partially defined the state as an entity that has monopoly over the use of force within its borders. It was a definition brilliant in its simplicity but also dangerous if interpreted in a too simplistic way. Surprisingly or not, many men and women in uniform still think largely in terms of such states.

A nation, on the other hand, is usually understood as founded by a social contract, and many argue that the existence of a cohesive nation is a critical prerequisite for true democracy. "A sense of national belonging is the twin sister of democracy," wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed Charles Kupchan, an international affairs expert who teaches at Georgetown University. "Nationalism is the social glue that makes consensual politics work."

But while the latter frame of reference is clearly preferable, a surprising number of voices have questioned the costs that Egypt - as well as many other Middle Eastern societies - would incur if it tried to go through the transition too quickly. Kupchan argues that "democracy in Egypt can wait". [5]

A very similar argument was made seven years ago by none other than General Sisi, in a strategic research paper written while studying at the US Army War (click here for the full text).

"Simply changing the political systems from autocratic rule to democratic rule will not be enough to build a new democracy," wrote Sisi, who nevertheless expressed support for a kind of Muslim democracy in the Middle East. " ... Due to the change that will be required and the accompanying time requirements, one cannot expect the Middle Eastern countries to convert quickly to a democratic form of government."

But what is more striking, certainly to those of us used to the idea that democracy is the best guarantee for the preservation of diversity, is that besides Western observers and Egypt's military rulers, there is a colorful indigenous crowd that is skeptical about the prospects of a quick transition to democracy in Egypt and the Middle East. It includes Egyptian Copts and liberals, Israeli Jews and Saudi Arabian Wahhabis.

For many of them, it's a matter of survival. After a series of bloody clashes, the Copts had been fleeing Egypt en masse under the Muslim Brotherhood government. [6] Even the most committed justice and democracy advocates find it hard to justify the sacrifice of human life for the sake of these values.

While the only true path to democracy is for people to keep demanding their rights and making the necessary sacrifices, it is sometimes hard to blame those who refuse to do so. As a man who described himself as a "gay Bahraini Jew" told me a few months ago, "I don't want to die so that we can have democracy in ten years."

History shows that while revolutions frequently result in subsequent episodes of violence and threaten minorities, military dictatorships that promise to usher in a more gradual transition also have a fairly poor track record. With the violence escalating in Egypt, good options seem to be in very short supply.

1. Things Fall Apart, Foreign Policy, August 17, 2013.
2. Analysis: Egypt has all the ingredients for an insurgency, NBC, August 8, 2013.
3. How American Hopes for a Deal in Egypt Were Undercut, New York Times, August 17, 2013.
4. Egypt's war of attrition, Ynet, August 18, 2013.
5. Democracy in Egypt Can Wait, New York Times, August 16, 2013.
6. Egypt's Coptic Christians fleeing country after Islamist takeover, Telegraph, January 13, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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