Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Jun 25, '13

Is Egypt on the verge of civil war?
By Monte Palmer

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As the US struggles to cope with the civil wars in Syria, Libya, the Sudan and Iraq, it must also ponder the prospect of a civil war in Egypt.

Egypt has been in a state of chaos since the Arab Spring Revolution of January 2011 and there is no end in sight.

In addition to destroying the center of stability in in the Arab world for the past five decades, a civil war in Egypt would fuel existing

civil conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, the Sudan, and Iraq.

Civil wars in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Jordan might not be far behind. All are linked to Egypt by a vast network of Islamic fundamentalist groups ranging from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood to the ultra violent salafi-jihadists.

The broader ramifications of an Egyptian civil war would certainly include the rekindling of a long dormant Arab-Israeli conflict and a deepening of the Muslim wars of religion being played out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.

Is Egypt on the verge of civil war? General Fua'd Al'lam, a general in the Egyptian Security Services and former Director of Security in Port Said, believes that it is.

In an interview entitled, "Civil War on the Doorstep Followed by the Revolution of the Hungry," General Al'lam warns that continued chaos will result in civil war and the splintering of Egypt into several mini-states. He goes on to warn, "Civil war is very close, the revolution of hunger very, very close." [1]

The General's warning was not without foundation. Egypt clearly possesses the preconditions for civil war. The ability of the Egyptian government to meet the basic needs of its population for food, shelter, work, and security fades by the day. Public services have followed suit as shortages of fuel and electricity have become endemic. Religious and class tensions have increased apace, as have political riots and demonstrations. All reflect an economy on the verge of collapse.

Riots and demonstrations are only part of the picture. Political militias are forming, most armed by weapons flowing into Egypt from Libya and the Gaza Strip. There are also an untold number of criminal gangs, religious police, armed tribes, feuding clans, private security firms, and anarchist groups such as the hooded Black Block whose members kill at random. More frightening are calls for arming the public and the creation of a "National Guard" independent of the security forces.

Egypt's situation is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future because its political institutions are in disarray. The popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood controls both the presidency and the parliament. However, it can't rule effectively in the face of sustained opposition from the seculars, the ultra Islamic extremists, and the entrenched remnants of the old regime.

The seculars riot, and protest. The ultra Islamic extremists create an endless series of crises by attacking churches, kidnapping soldiers, and lobbing rockets at Israel. The remnants of the old regime use their control of the judiciary to declare laws enacted by the Brotherhood unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the parliament itself, has been declared unconstitutional and remains in limbo.

So deep is the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and its adversaries that reconciliation is probably beyond hope. The Brotherhood clings to power in the hope of transforming Egypt into the centerpiece of a modern Islamic empire that blends strict Islamic morality with economic and technological development.

The opposition, judging by its behavior, would rather see Egypt plunged into civil war than allow this to happen.

The conflict between the Brotherhood and its adversaries pales in comparison to the conflict between the secular-liberals and the ultra-Islamic extremists. The secular-liberals refuse to accept Islamic rule whatever its claims of moderation.

For the ultra-Islamic extremists, the Brotherhood is far too moderate for their vision of Islamic purity. Some go so far as to claim that the Brotherhood is a tool of the devil that uses Islamic slogans to destroy Islam from within.

If one of the Brotherhood's adversaries seized power, their mutual hostility and the opposition of the Brotherhood will render sustained rule impossible. It couldn't be otherwise.

The Brotherhood dominates the center of Egypt's political spectrum while the three fragmented opposition currents revolve around it as mutually hostile satellites that fear each other more than they fear the Brotherhood.

This doesn't mean that temporary alliances to destroy the Brotherhood are out of the question. The jihadists, the ultra of the ultra Islamic extremists, openly admit that they support the secular opposition in Egypt as the first step in paving the way for a pure Islamic revolution that will sweep all vestiges of modernity from the Islamic world.

The security forces could step in and establish order, but they are reluctant to do so. The Minister of Defense and Head of the Military appointed by the Brotherhood responded to calls for a military government by warning, "This military is fire. Don't play with it. Forget it. If the military takes over, it will set back progress in Egypt by forty years." [2]

The police are part of the problem. Some have disappeared into the woodwork while others are choosing sides between the seculars and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. So dire is the situation that a recent Al-Jazeera program opened with the premise that Egyptians had totally lost confidence in their police. In the broadcast, an official attempting to defend the police claimed that they were trying their best, but had been overwhelmed by waves of crime and violence beyond their control.

This said, he acknowledged that the police were poorly trained and warned that they were being drawn into the political fray. [3] General Al'lam's interview adds fuel to the discussion by noting that most of the police are from poor backgrounds and view the upper classes with spite and envy.

The threat of civil war deepens if one examines the prevailing mood of the Egyptian population. The inflated expectations unleashed by the January 2011 revolution have crashed in a sea of hopelessness and despair. In their wake have come calls for a savior and a return of authoritarianism. It is also a mood intensified by a lethal mix of fear, distrust, spite, and revenge.

A heavy dose of self-righteousness contributes to Egypt's malaise by making compromise all but impossible. The reigning Brotherhood president claims the right to rule based upon faith and the mandate of the people. The secular-liberals claim the right to destroy a popularly elected president on the grounds that he was elected by an ignorant and backward majority of the Egyptian population. Only they, in their view, can lead Egypt to democracy and development. The ultra extremists view their efforts to return Egypt to a time warp of 7th century Arabia as the will of God because it is they, and not the Brotherhood, who possess the true message of Islam.

Given this psychological environment, survival has become an end in itself. Concern for the common good, never strong, has all but disappeared. A more detailed discussion of these and related psychological considerations can be found in my recently published The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations. [4]

These concerns rest most heavily on the ruling Muslim Brotherhood that has accomplished little in its two years in office. Despair within the Brotherhood has deepened as it tries desperately to convince the public that it has everything under control.

If the situation doesn't improve soon, the Brotherhood risks losing face as well as the desertion of supporters. Even hardcore supporters have begun to worry that progress toward the creation of a modern Islamic state has been minimal. To the contrary, they see the Brotherhood sacrificing its claim to morality by pandering to the US and tolerating a tourist industry that thrives on bars, booze, casinos and semi-nude beaches.

Something has to give but what? Time is running out. While the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party continues to pursue a democratic strategy in the hope of leading a modern Islamic revival that blends modernity and morality, the office of the Supreme Guide ponders an iron fisted strategy of crushing the opposition and ruling by force. It is the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood that will have the final say on the matter.

In many ways, a psychological civil war has already begun with bluffing and posturing on all sides. While the ruling Muslim Brotherhood struggles to convince a restless public that everything is under control, its opponents lace an unrestrained media with conspiracy theories so bizarre that reality has all but disappeared.

One conspiracy theory accuses the Brotherhood of importing thousands of Revolutionary Guards from Iran to keep it in power. Another accuses the Brotherhood of being a puppet of Israel and the United States. A third accuses the military of training Brotherhood militias. The list is endless. Rational decision-making has become all but impossible as the Egyptian media focuses on fear mongering rather than news.

If the masses are primed for revolution and no one can rule effectively, civil war and the fragmentation of Egypt into several mini-states may become a distinct possibility. The fault lines for a civil war begin with the irreconcilable divide between the seculars and the diverse advocates of Islamic rule crowned by ultra extremists intent on establishing caliphates in the remote areas of the Sinai and Upper Egypt. It is these caliphates that will provide the greatest potential for a splintering of Egypt.

The ideological fault line is deepened by the chasm of education, wealth, geography, and religion. It is in the vast slums of Cairo and Alexandria that the ultra extremists thrive. A majority of the residents of these areas, according to a recent survey, have never heard of the leading secular-liberal coalition that finds its support among the rich and college educated.

Religious conflicts have also become ugly. While Egyptian Coptic Christians, roughly 10-15% of the population, have lived in peace among Egypt's Muslim majority, fear of being forced to live under Islamic law has driven them to the side of the secular opposition.

The psychological civil war being fought in the press and on satellite channels is increasingly being reflected in low level conflict along the fault lines outlined above.

The ultra-Islamic extremists kidnap soldiers in the Sinai, launch rockets at Israel, torch Christian churches, and burn bars and other dens of iniquity. Not to be out done, the seculars collect millions of signatures calling for the removal of the Brotherhood president and warn that counter demonstrations by the Brotherhood will be the first step in a looming civil war.

The supporters of the Brotherhood responded in kind. Each blames the other of violent attacks on their members. Anarchists and armed clans add to the fray by blocking major thoroughfares and cutting rail lines.

Fault lines, however deep, do not imply coherence or cohesion.

The secular-liberals have no internal cohesion, no plan for the future, and no agreement on who should run the country if they succeed in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood. The best they can agree on is that the head of Constitutional Court, a relic of the deposed regime that declared Egypt's first reasonably fair elections unconstitutional, will become acting President until they can sort things out. Millions of hungry frustrated Egyptians may have signed petitions calling for the ouster of a failed Brotherhood president, but despair hardly qualifies as support for an ephemeral secular-liberal block that has no identity other than its opposition to Islamic rule.

The ultra Islamic extremists are also devoid of a clear strategy and quibble over what to do with the Brotherhood. Some want to use the Brotherhood as a steppingstone to a true Islamic revolution. Others fear it as a seductive alternative to their vision of Islamic rule similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What the millions of signatures do indicate is that crowd psychology, rather than faith or ideology, is coming to the fore. They also indicate that the Brotherhood's position as the center of Egypt's political spectrum will fade unless it can meet the demands of the Egyptian masses for food, jobs, security, and Islamic morality. Its democratic strategy is not working. Whether the Brotherhood can right the ship by authoritarian means remains to be seen.

Either way, the potential for civil war increases. So does the prospect that much of the Brotherhood's popular support will drift toward the ultra extremists.

In the meantime, a much divided and confused international community is doing its best to muddy Egyptian waters.

The West is pouring money into Egypt in the vain hope that privatization will bring peace to the Nile. In reality, privatization has already been abandoned, and infusions of cash will be spent on temporary subsidies or consumed by corruption. Whatever the case, the money will disappear and things will return to square one. How can it be otherwise when no one is in charge?

The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are attempting to block any form of Islamic rule by encouraging the Egyptian military to take a greater role in Egypt's political life. Efforts by the US-Saudi -Israeli axis are countered by a Qatar-Turkish axis that is betting on the Muslim Brotherhood. Both believe that the Brotherhood is not going away.

They also prefer the Brotherhood's vision of Islam to that of the ultra extremists. The Iranians, Russians and Chinese are also playing the Brotherhood card in as a ploy to counter the US control of the Middle East. Things remain vague, but the probability of a civil war in Egypt can only be deepened by its transformation by into a proxy war between the reigning international and regional powers.

1. Al'lam, Fua'd. "Egypt is on the Doorstep of Civil War, Followed by the Revolution of the Hungry." Elgornal, 31 March 2013. (Arabic)
2. Ziyani, Firouz. "Performance of the Police in Egypt ." Al-Jazeera, 18 April 2013.
3. Al-Sisi, Abd Al-Fatah. "If The Army Descends into the Streets, Egypt Will Not Progress for Forty Years." Elgornal, 11 May 2013. (Arabic)
4. Palmer, Monte. The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations. Charleston: CreateSpace, 2012. (For a review of this book, please see Hilal Khashan, "Brief Reviews," The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer 2013.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Monte Palmer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. His recent books include The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations, The Politics of the Middle East, Islamic Extremism (with Princess Palmer,) Political Development: Dilemmas and Challenges, and Egypt and the Game of Terror (a novel.) His email is arabpsyche@gmail.com and his blog is arabpsyche.wordpress.com

(Copyright Monte Palmer 2013)

Syria and Egypt can't be fixed
(Jun 17, '13)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110