Egypt’s burning, but don’t call it a civil war — yet
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Analysis

Egypt’s burning, but don’t call it a civil war — yet

The army is playing hardball with the Muslim Brotherhood, but as the body count rises, public support for the generals is eroding

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi carry an injured man to a field hospital following clashes with security forces at Nasr City, where pro-Morsi protesters have held a weekslong sit-in, in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 27 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi carry an injured man to a field hospital following clashes with security forces at Nasr City, where pro-Morsi protesters have held a weekslong sit-in, in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 27 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

It’s not a civil war yet, but Friday night’s events underline the level of strife in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters and the military. For now, the army still enjoys the backing of many secular groups, and even that of Salafist Muslims. But as the body count rises, that impressive support will slowly, inevitably erode.

Even the number of dead was up for argument Saturday. While the Muslim Brotherhood claims more than 120 people died in overnight clashes, the health ministry put the number at “only” 29. Discrepancies also exist in the estimates of how many people actually took part in Friday’s protests across the country. The media’s claim that 30 million people went out to demonstrate either for or against the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to swallow. Anyway you look at it, the notion that one out of every three Egyptians took to the streets seems like a stretch. However, even if it wasn’t 30 million, it is clear that millions of citizens are taking sides. The Egyptian divide is bitter, and the rival camps are highly motivated.

General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (photo credit: AP/Jim Watson, Pool)
General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (photo credit: AP/Jim Watson, Pool)

Clarity is emerging in some areas. For one thing, it is apparent that Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cares little about the honor of Egypt’s citizens. Unlike former president Hosni Mubarak, who could not order the army to fire on protesters, el-Sissi not only can, but is more than willing to do so. The order came down and, on Friday, we could see a change in the army’s attitude towards the protesters. The government, the new president Adly Mansour, everyone, has decided to take off the gloves and put an end to the protests in favor of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.

But cracks are already beginning to show in the anti-Islamist coalition. One leading former Muslim Brotherhood supporter, turned rival, Abd Al-Munim Abu-Fattouh, a former presidential contender, condemned Friday night’s slaughter and blamed the president and the defense minister for it.

A second factor becoming clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood has no intention of going gentle into that good night, no matter how much it costs in supporters’ blood. The Islamist movement is determined to flood the streets of Egypt with its people, and gradually turn all those who supported the second revolution against the military. Right now, that seems like an impossible goal, but as the number of dead increases, things may change.

The battle is far from over. “Iron Man” el-Sissi is out to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Islamists are convinced that they can topple the general. If Egypt doesn’t get back on track — economically and administratively — in the next few weeks, even the army’s strong-handed policy toward the Brotherhood will not produce stability. Tensions will rise further, and the danger of full-fledged civil war will draw ever closer.

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