War on the Nile?

Will Egypt be the next country to tumble into a civil war?

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Morsi supporters march toward Cairo on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, as they carry the coffin of their colleague who was killed during Wednesday's clashes.
Morsi supporters march toward Cairo on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, as they carry the coffin of their colleague who was killed during Wednesday's clashes.

"Crisis" is an old medical term denoting the crucial point at which a patient might suddenly turn toward either recovery or death. Egypt may be facing just such a crisis point, with reconciliation and civil war equally viable alternatives.

This, of course, comes at a time when the United States has just extracted itself from nine years of futile war in Iraq, is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan and has been desperately trying to avoid being sucked into Syria. Is Egypt, too, heading toward civil war? Will Egypt follow the path of Algeria, where a coup prevented an Islamist electoral victory in 1992 and unleashed a decade of bloodletting? Will Egypt eradicate its moderate Islamists and leave the field to the most radical elements?

The answer, as usual, is a resounding "maybe."

One factor conducive to civil war certainly exists: each of two rival political groups firmly believes that it is the sole legitimate government of Egypt. Moreover, each has a sizable cohort of convinced and dedicated followers.

Another ominous circumstance is Egypt's potential emergence as a failed state. In some respects, economic conditions were actually improving at the time of Mubarak's overthrow in February 2011, although, significantly, many people had been excluded from the benefits of that improvement. Ever since then, the economy has declined and the country has grown increasingly ungovernable: foreign investment has been scared off; tourism is a distant memory; power outages are endemic; crime is rampant; vigilantes mete out justice on the streets. Frustration and desperation abound. People may associate these trends with the Morsi government, but they began a year and a half earlier and continue today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

With regard to the magnitude of violence, more than 1,000 people have been killed to date. Coincidentally, that is the figure that many political scientists use to delineate the difference between "unrest" and "war." The issue here, however, is that nearly all of the deaths have been on the same side, the army and police killing demonstrators. Thus, what we have seen so far is not civil war so much as oppression, or simply mass killing.

Operating against the likelihood of war is the fact that the Egyptian army, unlike its counterparts in Libya and Syria, has remained united. So far, not even a small portion has defected with its arms to fight for the other side. This, naturally, keeps the killing potential concentrated on one side and favors a future of continued oppression rather than war.

As for the physical landscape, the geography of Egypt is not particularly conducive to guerrilla warfare, although it does not exclude the possibility. Egypt is not a place of jungles or mountains; most of it is empty desert. Nearly all of the country's sizable population is packed into a narrow strip along the Nile River. A possible exception is the rugged Sinai Peninsula. In fact, a number of militant groups already operate there, at least one of which aspires to be recognized by the central leadership of al-Qaida as al-Qaida in the Sinai.

This shows that insurgency is a possibility, although it could be a geographically isolated one. Urban guerrilla warfare is also a possibility; the history of this strategy has not been particularly marked by success, but it could cause years of disruption.

[Vote: Did President Obama Respond Appropriately to Growing Violence in Egypt?]

As a practical matter, much depends on whether would-be insurgents can gain access to weapons. If the army holds together, then official army weapons will be difficult for the insurgents to obtain, but not impossible. Foreign countries could feasibly take up the insurgents' cause and supply arms surreptitiously. Qatar has allegedly supplied arms to Islamist insurgents in Libya and Syria, but this is a different situation. Until now, Qatar has always supported the same side of the civil war as its larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia; they just armed different factions within that side. It has been a rivalry, but one kept within limits.

In this case, Saudi Arabia has already openly sided with, and encouraged, the Egyptian military. It seems unlikely that Qatar would be so bold as to arm insurgents fighting a Saudi ally. I suspect that Washington would not be terribly pleased either. Besides, since June Qatar has had a new emir, and for all we know he may not even be interested in continuing such a strategy.

On the other hand, Egypt has a long and open border with Libya, and Libya remains awash with arms — both those supplied to rebel militias during its civil war and the vast armories accumulated over decades by Gadhafi. Many of those arms are freely available for a price. A few might even be available without a price if you know the right people.

In the end, the key question is, who would fight this war? One side is clear: the army. Much will depend on the unpredictable decisions that people on the other side — or the numerous potential other sides — choose to make.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood reconcile itself to its fate and work within the new political system (with the understanding that the new rules mean it will not be permitted to win power at any time in the foreseeable future, regardless of its electoral strength)? Will it insist on its rights and turn to violence to win back what was taken from it? Will it split in two or more parts, with different factions moving in different directions? (This could feasibly have a relatively happy ending; if both sides split, a coalition of old-regime reformers and opposition moderates could form the basis of a stable center against both extremes.)

Will other, unrelated groups — more radical Islamists perhaps — take up the opportunity to fight for their own right to rule, honestly or cynically acting in the name of the deposed rulers or in coalition with a Brotherhood faction? A number of insurgent groups active in the 1990s are still around, although they have generally renounced violence, lost many of their supporters and in some cases become so fractious that their leaders have taken to excommunicating each other.

Finally, according to some analysts, the army could force the issue, believing that the path to its future lies in a fight with the Muslim Brotherhood. The theory is that the Brotherhood is still Egypt's strongest political force but that Islamist violence would discredit it in the eyes of the people and marginalize it in Egyptian politics. With this in mind, the generals may plan to continue provoking the organization until that day comes.

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association, senior editor of the "Encyclopedia Americana" and  author of "The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History."

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