(This analysis was also published in The Conversation.)
Egypt is waking up to a death toll of more than 460 people after yesterday’s massacres. After factoring in the death toll of weeks of unrest, that’s close on 800 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.
To fight a civil war, regime opponents need the weapons, or the resources to acquire them. They need the expertise in how to fight, and sustain, an asymmetric campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood may well be able to acquire both over time, but any escalation to civil war would at best be gradual.
More likely, the situation would resemble an uneven race between the army and its opponents: one side trying to crush the other before it can build up necessary capabilities, the other to survive until it is more evenly matched.
But decades of repression and persecution did not destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, so in light of recent events it is possible to imagine small bands of guerrilla fighters being able to command sufficient popular support to maintain a low-level campaign of violent resistance.
Considering the wider network the Brotherhood has in the region and beyond, external support is likely to create opportunities in the form of resources, expertise – and fighters. Events in Egypt fit in very well with an al-Qaeda narrative of suppression of Islam by corrupt local governments supported by Western powers. Moreover, there is a significant danger that turmoil in Egypt will spread and further destabilise an already volatile region.
What the West should do
Yet opportunity cuts both ways, and in a double sense. On the one hand, opportunities for the Muslim Brotherhood to build up capabilities to fight an all-out civil war can be denied, or at least constrained, by controlling and intercepting flows of weapons, money and people, challenging though that might be.
Similarly, opportunities for the army to further escalate violence can, and must, also be constrained. What is needed is a much more clearly and publicly articulated policy by Egypt’s international partners in the West and in the Muslim world of what is unacceptable. This needs to be backed by credible threats of sanctions and offers of incentives if certain conditions are met.
Chief among these needs to be an immediate de-escalation of violence. Both the US and the EU are in a position to do so – the US because of its long-standing links with the Egyptian military, the EU because it has played an important, if so far unsuccessful, mediation role between the Brotherhood and the army.
Denying means and constraining opportunities for a full-blown civil war, however, are stop-gap measures. They can at best be effective for a period of time only and create a window of opportunity for cooler and more rational heads to prevail and prevent the currently extremely volatile situation in Egypt from spinning out of control.
The key challenge for the rival factions in Egypt is to learn the right lessons from its so-far disastrous post-Mubarak transition and find the courage to right the wrongs committed by both sides.