Overnight and into today, the Egyptian military did what it has been threatening to do for more than a month: Surround and violently disburse the main Muslim Brotherhood protest camp at Rabaa in Cairo, leaving scores dead, and touching off all-too-predictable reprisals against government interests and Christians across the country.
Judging by the historical behavior of the Egyptian military's top brass, they won't be too upset by the reaction of Brotherhood supporters and may well be delighted by it. From the moment it toppled elected President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the military has spun a narrative that paints opposition to their actions as terrorism, directed by foreigners interested in destroying the Egyptian state. Who is the hero of moment, the only one who can "save" Egypt?
And the military today declared a month-long state of emergency, as well as a daily curfew, that gives them nearly unfettered powers of arrest and a free hand to use violence as they see fit, much like the 30-year state of emergency they used after Anwar Sadat was assassinated to bolster the reign of Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak was abandoned by his military allies after the popular uprising against him in January 2011.
While there has been much talk in Egypt about democracy and the "will of the people," it's hard to see the ground that's currently being shaped as one that favors anyone more than the military, which now seems determined to decapitate the Brothers. The blood of the innocent poor has never troubled Egypt's army, perpetually more concerned with looking after its sprawling business interests.
The military toppled Morsi, too, in response to mass protests against his government. But while the cleavages in Egyptian society were papered over by the euphoria of toppling a longstanding dictator in 2011, they were right out in the open this July, and now. There is no longer even the illusion of a united nation of those who might have different political opinions but were willing to set the terms for open and peaceful political competition.
Egyptians afraid of the Brothers have lapped all this up. Their fear of the Brothers and their regressive agenda is understandable. The Brotherhood's ultimate goal is for Islamic law to dominate society, and that worries millions of Egyptians, not just the Christians who make up about 10 percent of the country.
But it's also a fact that many millions of Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood and are now being spoken of as vermin, as animals that deserve death. Many of them will inevitably fight back, and with the military too strong to attack head on, soft targets and civilians will likely be their targets. Scores of unarmed Brotherhood supporters died today.
The tragedy of churches burned and Christians murdered in Minya, al-Arish, and Suez within hours of the military attack in Cairo provide a perfect pretext to move on senior and mid-ranking Brotherhood members, whether they were involved in violence or not. Lightly guarded police posts and offices of the Justice Ministry – symbols of state power without guns to back them up – have also been attacked around the country.
It was a dead certainty that reprisal attacks on Christian and civilian government targets would closely follow a violent attack on Rabaa. Once you know that, the failure of the military to take steps to secure likely targets ahead of its attack on the Muslim Brotherhood protesters speaks volumes.
Parts of Cairo were described as free-fire zones by reporters on the scene, with soldiers firing live ammunition at rock-throwing protesters. Pictures of makeshift morgues with dozens of bodies have been circulating via social media. Multiple news outlets, as well as many people on the ground in Rabaa, have said that among the dead at Rabaa was the teenage daughter of Mohamed Beltagy, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won Egypt's last parliamentary election.
Liberal democracy in Egypt? The press often speaks of "liberals" in opposition to "Islamists" in Egypt, but that's generally a severe abuse of the word "liberal." Many Egyptians opposed to the Brotherhood were delighted by the military coup last month and want the army to use force to drive the Brothers from political life. They are untroubled by niceties like freedom of expression, or freedom from arbitrary arrest, or a desire to restrain state violence.
While many of course support neither the Brothers nor military rule, Egypt's officer class now has the wind at its back, and appears to be intent on returning Egypt to the status quo of three decades under Mubarak.
A new, bloodier period is coming for Egypt. The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago as a tactical decision, with the promise that it might achieve power at the ballot box, has now been given a lesson in the failures of peaceful political organization.
The only real question is if it will be something like the early to mid-1990s in Egypt, when jihadi groups engaged in sporadic terrorist attacks and clashes in Upper Egypt, or if something even deadlier than that is to come.