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Too Soon for "Civil War"

Mislabeling Egypt's dire situation could make it worse

Mahmud Hams/AFP

July 8 was a bad and bloody day in Egypt. Fifty-five supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi died after the army fired on them. How exactly that came to be is disputed. Morsi’s backers—some members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others who say they support him because he was democratically elected—say armed forces shot them unprovoked as they were praying in the predawn hours. The army contends that unknown gunmen fired on its soldiers, killing one and wounding many more, and that the military then returned fire.

The violence has led some observers to ask whether Egypt is on a path to “civil war.” On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Egypt was "moving in the direction" of one. And it is not only outsiders who use the phrase. So did Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of the Al Azhar Mosque, a center of Islamic authority worldwide. On state television Monday, El Tayeb said that “until everybody takes responsibility to stop the bloodshed, to prevent the country from being dragged into a civil war,” he would remain in seclusion. This marked the religious community’s second invocation of the provocative “civil war” phrase. On June 28, following clashes in the run-up to the June 30 Tamarod, or “Rebel” demonstrations, Al Azhar had said in a statement that “vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war.”

The term’s recurrence in reference to Egypt raises threshold questions: Precisely what is a “civil war”? And what would it take for Egypt to become one? 

As a legal matter, the International Committee for the Red Cross understands “civil wars” (and all other so-called “non-international armed conflicts”) to involve, first, a certain intensity of fighting. Some political science academics rather morbidly quantify the legal requirement of intensity, insisting on 1,000 deaths overall, with at least 100 on each side. A civil war must also be of a minimum duration, and any forces not aligned with the state must meet minimum organizational requirements. So far, Egypt does not meet any of the legal criteria. Violent acts on the part of Morsi supporters, when they occur, have been perpetrated by small, unorganized groups. Violence has been sporadic and therefore would not meet the “intensity” criterion. All of the larger scale organization has been peaceful and the 12 days so far of intermittent violence is not a significant duration.

That said, recent events certainly point to deep societal divisions—and thus forebode further deterioration. During 18 days of uprisings in January of 2011, the Egyptian people stood almost united. Not so today, when a deeply polarizing rhetoric prevails. One organizer of the Tamarod movement, whose mobilization on June 30 resulted in President Morsi’s ouster, said he had given the army the “choice,” either to be with the Brotherhood or with the Egyptian people—as though Brotherhood supporters were no longer Egyptian. Others sweepingly disparage the Brotherhood and all supporters of the deposed president—whether affiliated with the Brotherhood or not—as “terrorists.” Only a few lonely voices in the increasingly ugly Egyptian Twitterverse have implored colleagues to remember that, yes, even the Brotherhood members killed yesterday were human beings. 

To be sure, the Brotherhood hasn’t exactly emphasized the humanity it shares with its political opponents, either. On the contrary, in recent days some members of the group have increasingly spoken in terms of retribution and in some cases the renunciation of peaceful dissent. And partisans in both the Brotherhood and Tamarod often quickly take positions based on ideology, without waiting to learn all the facts behind a particular incident. Some Tamarod associates, for example, stoutly refuse to believe anything negative about the army—even though it is clear that, provoked or not, the Egyptian military killed 55 demonstrators yesterday.

Despite these worrying incidents, a civil war is unlikely. At a minimum, it is far too soon to say. Here’s why.

First, the Egyptian army is powerful, and though it might provoke here or deliberately refuse to act there, it nevertheless would not allow a full-blown civil war. This would defeat the military’s central objective of cementing its own authority. And it is not clear that the Brotherhood would be willing to call on its supporters to take up arms or could marshall enough support to take on a force as powerful and apparently united as the Egyptian Army. Egypt is unlikely to become another Algeria, where the army removed the Islamists from power before they had been allowed to try their hand at governing, resulting in civil war. In this case, by contrast, the army has widespread support in part because many people think that the Brotherhood sealed its own fate through a year of bumbling and incompetent governance. Furthermore, while there are clear efforts to marginalize the Brotherhood, the army and interim government have gone to great lengths to include and accomodate the Salafi Nour Party, indicating that there is still room for Islamists to participate in politics. The Nour Party may absorb former Brotherhood members and others who might otherwise defect from the political process entirely. Finally, Egypt already had an armed Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. And it didn't work.  

There’s also a very large but silent Egyptian majority—as there always is—which thus far has stayed home. Only a very small percentage of Egyptians have been involved in clashes and the vast majority just want stability. On June 30, many shops were shut as their owners took to the street to protest what has been a very bad year. Since the glow of the January 25, 2011 peaceful uprisings that toppled Mubarak wore off, if you asked people in Egypt about the largest challenges they faced, they would tell you and have told me, “the economy and the security situation,” both of which a civil war would exacerbate beyond imagination. These larger concerns in Egyptian society are longstanding, and are shared by all Egyptians. I don’t think anyone in the Brotherhood camp would argue that the economy under Morsi was in great shape, or that security was what it should have been. Today, most people are back in business, eager to cater to Egyptians doing their last-minute shopping before Ramadan begins tomorrow. 

Finally, the invocation of the “civil war” framing, particularly in the Egyptian context, can lead to justifications for all sorts of human and civil rights violations in the name of security. As violence escalates, there are more and more potential justifications for instigating a “state of emergency” which, in the recent past, has led to military trials of civilians, torture of those in detention and severe crackdowns on media outlets and limitations on freedom of expression. While such measures may prove stabilizing in the short term, over the long run, they breed resentment and anger as we saw after 30 years of Mubarak.  

Where, then, is Egypt headed? Ramadan begins tomorrow and will undoubtedly change the mood here. But already Egyptians have spoken: They have gone back to work. And the minority voices who continue to call for conflict, whether political or armed, will remain just that, minorities, with one important caveat: providing there is reasonable and inclusive political leadership in the coming days and weeks. Where that will come from is another pressing question without an obvious answer.