More than 300 dead and many thousands more injured since June. An elected president in custody. Army units using deadly force to clear protesters off the streets. Egypt appears to be spiralling out of control.
The question the international community must now face is whether the situation will further deteriorate and escalate into a full-blown civil war. Reports from Cairo where the confrontation between the supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and the army is in full swing have been harrowing. Today’s butcher’s bill is at least 100 and will surely rise.
The already yawning gulf between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, may now be even more difficult to bridge than a week ago. Then European and US mediators appeared hopeful that they could broker a peaceful end to the stand-off in Egypt caused as a result the army coup which removed Morsi.
With the benefit of hindsight, this hope was misplaced. And now any political solution is that much harder to imagine.
The Road to Conflict
There is certainly no lack of motivation for further violence. Morsi’s supporters, inside and outside the Muslim Brotherhood, rightly feel betrayed by events. The president was democratically elected, and while he and his inner circle grossly mismanaged Egypt’s transition, the military coup and its aftermath were anything but progress for Egypt’s Arab Spring.
One of the obvious but misleading conclusions for the Brotherhood may simply be that the democratic process will not help them advance their goals, and that violence instead may be more justifiable.
What is misleading about such a simplistic “lesson” is that democracy is not simply the rule of the majority, but a form of government that protects minorities as well. Especially in diverse, and even more so in deeply divided societies, majorities ignore the need for inclusiveness at their peril.
Yet, this not only applies to numerical majorities but it also extends to otherwise dominant groups. The army in Egypt may still enjoy support among secularists and feel emboldened to crack down hard on its Muslim Brotherhood challengers, but it too cannot forever rule by force alone and eventually risks losing the popular support it still enjoys among secularists.
The army may see a unique opportunity now to crush the pro-Morsi camp, and thus be motivated to escalate violence further, but this is not a long-term strategy for stability.
Even if we were to accept that one or even both sides are motivated for further violent escalation, this would in itself not be enough to lead to a full-blown civil war in the absence of two further crucial ingredients: means and opportunity.