Against a backdrop of intense, sporadic and seemingly uncontainable political violence unfolding since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, 3 July, Rabab El-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo and a prominent political activist with a firm leftist association, warns that Egypt could now be edging closer to “low intensity but continuous violence” that could last for years with considerable societal and political costs.
Since the military "intervened" 3 July to execute a wide public demand to end the one-year rule of Morsi, due to deteriorating living conditions and continued political repression, acts of violence have been a daily occurence. Attacks against Copts and churches, especially in Upper Egypt, are prominent. There have also been attacks against Shias and Sufis.
With the bloody dispersal of two sit-ins of pro-Morsi supporters last Wednesday (14 August), violence entered a more aggressive phase that included attacks on state institutions, police stations and public buildings.
The convoluted circumstances of the killing of close to 40 mainly pro-Morsi supporters while being transformed Sunday from interrogation to custody and the subsequent killing in cold blood by 25 army conscripts in Rafah, Sinai, prompted alarm that Egypt is “already in” or “slipping towards” civil war.
Another Syria, another Lebanon or another Algeria have been scenarios discussed while the country lives under a state of emergency coupled in large parts of the country with a sunset to sunrise curfew.
Concerned over the fate of civil peace, El-Mahdi states that “we are not in a civil war," nonetheless. "We cannot qualify every form of societal violence as civil war,” she said, in interview with Ahram Online. She added, however, that “Egypt is going through a very tough time."
According to El-Mahdi, the geographic and demographic make-up of Egyptian society do not easily allow for civil war. She hastened to warn, however, that “this is not to say that we are immune to catastrophe, but civil war is not the only catastrophe that a society can face."
Low intensity continuous violence is the catastrophe El-Madhi is worried Egypt appears to be drifting towards. Egypt will not be another Syria, El-Mahdi believes, because it is not ethnically or geographically susceptible to such a scenario; it will not be another Lebanon because it does not have that diverse ethnic composition, and it will not be Algeria, because unlike the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) that was founded in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded more than six decades earlier, has a much wider societal presence that goes beyond a narrow political/militant profile.
“But let us think of Pakistan,” El-Mahdi says with clear unease. Pakistan is not overtly in civil war, for many reasons — not all strictly internal. “But it did get into low intensity violence that has prevented it from being truly democratic, despite elections, or from being truly developed like other Asian countries — say Malaysia.”
“To have a civil war, a country needs to have many small factions with equal power, or two main factions again with equal — or close to equal — power. This is not the case in Egypt because ultimately Egyptians are not ethnically diverse. Even when they do not follow the same faith. It could not be argued that the power of the Muslim Brotherhood is equal to that of the army or the police.”
This said, El-Mahdi argued, the Muslim Brotherhood is far from being a peripheral political organisation. In the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, Mohamed Morsi, then the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, managed to secure five million votes at a time when there were other Islamists running, including Mohamed Selim Awa, a lawyer and writer, and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, cast out of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau in 2011.
“So we are not talking here about the National Democratic Party [formerly led by ousted president Hosni Mubarak], which is basically an interest group that was dissolved when Mubarak was removed by the January 25 Revolution. We are not even talking about just another party or organsiation, but rather a societal current. This is precisely why we are talking about wide and hard to bridge societal polarisation,” El-Mahid stressed.
Along with this polarisation, actually building before the ouster of Morsi, El-Mahdi said there is a disturbing availability and accessibility of arms, finding their way into the country under loose security arrangements over the past two and a half years.
“This is why when some people talk about the potential replay of the 1990s, I think that maybe they are underestimating the volume of violence — and for that matter repression — that we could be heading towards,” El-Mahdi said.
Putting Egypt on the road towards these sad and disturbing times, according to El-Mahdi, had been the doing of many parties. “It is not just about the Muslim Brotherhood, but for sure the failures of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent state of depression is mainly to blame,” she said.
According to El-Mahdi, the blame also goes to “the revolutionary powers that failed [during and after the January 25 Revolution] to come together in a cohesive context that could have reached out to the people who were dismayed by the Muslim Brotherhood failure to live up to the aspirations of the revolution (dignity, freedom, social justice), thus forcing the people to lean on the military.”
State bodies that reduced the matter to “a security issue,” and state-run media that “engaged in an aggressive anti-Islamist incitement campaign that goes beyond the boundaries of legitimate criticism,” are also to blame according to El-Mahdi. The situation “goes beyond political dispute to a societal dispute.” “Politics has become a zero sum game, especially in the sad absence of any visionary, as opposed to the current populist, political leadership,” she laments.
It is possible to reverse course, or at least reduce the intensity of the wave of violence, El-Mahdi says. “To reverse course, we need to see the revolutionary powers come together, away from presumed unavoidable alliances — either with the military or Islamsits,” El-Mahdi said, arguing that it is possible that some who are currently standing on the sidelines could end up in a pact with Islamists if anti-Islamist repression gets tougher, “as it might well do.”
“Society has to have alternatives beyond the essentially reactionary visions that have so far been offered by both the military and the Islamists,” El-Mahdi said.
“But there is another key factor for the formula of reversing course: we need to start focusing on the real issues, the real problems that we have been living with and suffering from, beyond when the Islamists came to power. We really need to move beyond the blame game, especially that the blame has been clearly established,” El-Mahdi stated. “The country is not in a state of war and the government and the media should not be acting as such,” she added.
For their part, El-Mahdi argued, Islamists need to realise that a prolonged zero sum game is not in their interests. “They cannot be missing the real societal anger,” she said.
Acknowledging the human tragedy the bloody sit-in dispersals produced, El-Mahdi is convinced that the path towards the current wave of low intensity continuous violence started before that. She fears that wisdom will not prevail. Further, she is concerned over the “negative symbolism” of the possible release of Hosni Mubarak following his acquittal on financial corruption charges and the expiry of the maximum remand period in his case, though he still faces retrial on charges related to the killing of peaceful protesters during the January 25 Revolution.
“It is essentially about the symbolism of the release of the man associated with long years of Islamist repression while Islamists are being rounded up,” El-Mahdi said.
Meanwhile, El-Mahdi is convinced that if no political momentum for reconciliation emerges, Egypt could get into a phase that “is much worse than that of the police state under the rule of Mubarak."
“What we have before us today are exactly the ingredients that could build a fascist regime. We have seen fascist regimes come in the wake of revolutionary momentum at the early decades of last century in Europe, and during the 1970s in Latin America. We could well see it here in Egypt — and this is no small catastrophe,” she stated.
“It is not impossible to avert the catastrophe if we promptly opt for efficient transitional justice, and if sincere political will is demonstrated, across the board, to end incitement. I am not so sure, however, that this will happen,” El-Mahdi said.