Battles across Egypt, and alarmed comparisons to Syria and Iraq

Comparisons of Egypt to regional nations that have witnessed ruinous civil wars are premature – but worth noting.

Amr Nabil/AP
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi surround a coffin, covered with national flags, of their colleague who was killed during Wednesday' clashes in Amr Ibn Al-As mosque before a funeral prayers in Cairo, Egypt, Friday.

Egypt is erupting before the world's eyes, and there is no technology-babble about Facebook or Twitter revolutions anymore. Instead there's a Hobbesian, zero-sum battle being fought that is narrowing whatever window is left for compromise and reconciliation.

Unarmed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been gunned down by government forces, armed supporters of the movement have skirmished with police, dozens of churches have been burned across the country in the past few days, and the rhetoric of holy war and squashing terrorism vie with each other for shrillness and rage across the Egyptian airwaves and on social media.

The death toll has surpassed 700 since Egypt's interim military-backed government stormed Muslim Brotherhood protests camps on Wednesday. And as a military-imposed curfew in Cairo and other cities drew close this evening, the death toll from today alone reached 38.

That may not sound like much compared with the horrific violence that neighbors like Syria and Libya have experienced in recent years, but Egypt appears to be spiraling quickly out of control, leading some to wonder if war could be in the offing.

The current state of play is that Muslim Brotherhood supporters reacted with predictable rage to the government assault on the protests Wednesday, and in many cases played off of sectarian hatred. Egypt's Christian minority groups has long been a proxy target for Islamists too weak to strike out at the military directly, and a current of disdain for other faiths is strong among many Egyptian Muslims.

Egypt's Copts feared the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories last year, particularly the rise of the movement's Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. They cheered his ouster with a combination of mass protest and military coup at the start of July. But when the assaults started against churches in Cairo, the Nile Delta, in the coastal city of Alexandria, along the Suez Canal, and in upper (southern) Egypt this week, the military was nowhere to be seen.

Many in Egypt are now wondering if elements of Egypt's military, Egypt's main political power, are happy with the turn of events. Muslim Brothers are derided as terrorists whether they resort to violence or not and are reasoning they might as well resort to violence. Pro-military civilian groups are reported to be taking up knives, clubs, and the occasional rifle. Perhaps army chief Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his fellow officers reason that the killing will simultaneously discredit the Muslim Brothers, giving them the pretext for a mass crackdown against the movement, and slam the door shut on the fundamental political change in Egypt they seem to fear.

It is too late for Egypt to pull back from the brink, of course. Perhaps the overnight curfew will pass reasonably quietly and cooler heads will prevail tomorrow - after a Friday that the Muslim Brothers declared a "day of rage." But many people who know the country well are deeply worried. 

Consider Liz Sly, a steady and careful reporter who's been covering conflict in the Middle East since the 1980s, most recently the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. She writes on Twitter today:

Feels like we are witnessing what happened in 2011 in Syria, when the govt kept journalists out. How long before it's Syria 2012?

— Liz Sly (@LizSly) August 16, 2013

What she means is how Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests against his rule with maximum force after they erupted in 2011, giving his opponents no choice but to surrender or plunge the country into civil war. They chose civil war and since then, at least 100,000 Syrians have died in the fighting, and cities like Homs and Aleppo have been left in ruins.

Or consider Human Rights Watch, which carried a piece yesterday by Middle East researcher Erin Evers, who is now in Cairo and spent 2012 in Iraq:

Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police. Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.

These scenes in an Egypt that I thought I knew remind me, sadly, of the place I spent the better part of the last year as a Human Rights Watch researcher: Iraq.

Iraq too is littered with checkpoints, far more numerous and permanent than in Cairo, and with bomb-scarred neighborhoods; radical Jihadist groups and security forces who commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This is what I fear Egypt could become. There, divisions are entrenched: the sides are unable to divorce themselves from past grievances and ultimately choose violence over national reconciliation. Waking Thursday in Egypt, after a night of fires blazing in Cairo neighborhoods, a death tally over 500 and steadily rising, I fear Egypt has embarked on a similar path.

Egypt is of course a vastly different place than Iraq, with different sectarian fault lines and political tensions. And while the war that raged in Iraq from 2003-2008 has cooled, it never really died out.

But what Egypt has in common with Iraq – or any other society amid turmoil – is a growing level of distrust, declining respect for its national institutions, and a security establishment that is increasingly inclined to reach for the gun as its first response to domestic trouble.

The lesson many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood already seem to be taking is that democracy doesn't pay: Muslim Brotherhood leaders who gave up violence as a tool for political change generations ago are being shown up now as fools. In Cairo today, black banners associated with holy war were seen at some marches, and Brotherhood supporters repeatedly speak of martyrdom and of the threat posed to Islam itself by unfolding events in Egypt.

That's of course "Islam" as the Brothers see it. The majority of their opponents, both in uniform and out of it, are Muslims too, but don't desire the total conflation of faith and state that is the Brotherhood's ultimate goal.

Egypt is not at war yet. But take a look at the video below, which shows pro-Morsi protesters fleeing from a clash with security forces in Giza, just across the Nile in Cairo today. This is what the war before a war often looks like. 

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