Middle East

Is Egypt Heading Towards Civil War?

With the opposition planning to boycott April elections and demanding for Morsi to be overthrown, the country’s Islamists are warning of dark consequences if democracy is thwarted. Mike Giglio reports on the growing threat of political violence in Egypt.

On the night of December 7, Ahmed Abdel Hamid sensed violence coming. A 35-year-old Salafi activist with a rugged black beard and a pro wrestler’s build, he and a few thousand of his hardline religious comrades had massed outside the futuristic compound in western Cairo known as “media city,” the heart of Egypt’s expanding TV-news universe. They waited for word from the capital’s east.

Across Cairo, in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis, thousands of demonstrators had surged past a military barricade and up to the walls of the presidential palace. Abdel Hamid and his colleagues believed that the country’s opposition planned to storm the palace and overthrow Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president. If that happened, Abdel Hamid says, Islamists were prepared to take the country back by force. They’d stop playing by the rules of Egypt’s democratic experiment and impose their vision of religious rule.

The first step would be to take over the airwaves and declare that the battle had begun. “I was happy and sad,” Abdel Hamid remembers. “I was sad about the situation the country would have been taken to—to this point where we were clashing with one another. But at the same time, I was happy we were so close to announcing the Islamic State. So it was like, OK, go ahead.”

In the end, the night concluded peacefully. The protesters left the palace, and Abdel Hamid and his colleagues returned to the original focus of their sit-in, protesting what they saw as unfair coverage of the anti-Morsi demonstrations. But the specter of political violence continues to loom over Egypt. On one side, the country’s opposition forces are pushing for a so-called revolution against Morsi. On the other, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies are retrenching in their support of the president.

On Wednesday, in another forceful move to delegitimize Morsi, Egypt’s main opposition front announced a boycott of April’s parliamentary elections. Over the weekend, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate leading the front, had called the approaching elections an “act of deception” and compared them to the rigged votes held under former dictator Hosni Mubarak. After the boycott was announced, another prominent opposition politician declared, “The aim now is to bring down this regime,” according to the Associated Press.

Yet both analysts and Islamists warn that if the opposition were to succeed in ousting Morsi, it would carry grave risks for the country.

Morsi’s supporters say they’re defending not just the president but Egypt’s young democracy. And they often speak darkly of the repercussions if Morsi were somehow forced from office. One Islamist activist—who worked closely with his liberal and secular counterparts in campaigns against Mubarak and the generals who ran the country after the January 25 revolution—puts the warning bluntly: “Those idiot liberals, if they think they will get Morsi out of office the wrong way, which is not by elections, then they will open the gates of hell.”

Moaz Abdel Karim, a political operative in Cairo and former Brotherhood member, says that the country’s myriad Islamist groups are “still sticking to democratic power, because they’re stronger in it.” (The Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice Party dominated the last parliamentary elections last year.) But behind closed doors, Abdel Karim says, many now discuss the idea of reacting violently if Morsi is seriously threatened. “In the case of having that [democratic] power taken away from them, they would respond with violence, and they would see that violence as protecting the state,” he says.

Abdel Hamid, the Salafi activist, belongs to a formidable religious movement called Hazemon, named for a firebrand ultraconservative preacher, Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. During a campaign that saw him suggest that women should be veiled and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel should be reevaluated, Abu Ismail was a frontrunner in last year’s presidential election before being disqualified on a technicality, and his movement oversees well-organized groups country-wide. Dwarfing his small plastic chair at a street-side café in Cairo one recent night, Abdel Hamid stressed that he doesn’t want violence. But beneath this message was the threat that Islamists have both the numbers and the raw street power to wreak havoc on the opposition. “If [the opposition] is saying there is chaos, then chaos is chaos, and I am here,” he said. “Then don’t tell me about democracy. Whoever has the strength will rule from that point.”

Experts say it’s unlikely that Morsi will be ousted before his term ends in 2016. The Army seems wary of wading back into politics—it had a hard time running the country after Mubarak, and many of its traditional privileges are safeguarded by the Islamist-penned constitution enacted in a December referendum. The opposition also appears to have little chance of convincing Morsi to step down, no matter how many people it brings to the street. Some liberal activists say their best hope is to pressure Morsi into creating a more inclusive government. Others hope they can force early elections.

But the message of many demonstrators on the street is that they will not be satisfied until Morsi is gone. And the opposition is refusing to play by the rules of a political system it views as rigged, as the calls to boycott show. Its leaders slam Morsi for being too Islamist and for assuming near-dictatorial powers during the process of passing the Constitution. They also contend that he is stocking state institutions with Brotherhood loyalists and packing the government with allies, despite being elected with just 51 percent of the vote. They portray the recent breakdown in public order in Port Said and other Suez cities—which began in protest of a court ruling on a deadly soccer riot—as proof that Morsi has lost his legitimacy as Egypt’s leader.

Ahmed Said, a prominent liberal politician who heads the Free Egyptians Party, which has joined with ElBaradei’s opposition front, says Egypt has passed the tipping point in terms of opposing Morsi. “By all means, it’s the second wave of the revolution,” he says. “It’s not that he needs to leave office. It’s that he will be forced one day to leave office. There are a lot of scenarios.” In Said’s view, the chaos could convince the military that it has no choice but to intervene, an idea he calls a major step backward for the country. Or, he says, a popular movement like the one that toppled Mubarak could erupt—though unlike the Arab Spring moment, when Egyptians united against a dictator, they’d be turned against one another. “A complete, bloody revolution,” Said calls it.

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Islamists, he adds, are using the talk of violence to scare the opposition into falling in line. “The idea that they are trying to export to the world—that the other side is the one that is violent—is a naive way to put things,” he says. “Whenever they say this, it is always accompanied immediately by the threat that they can become violent too. And there is a sense on the street among those opposing Morsi that we are waiting for them. If they want to be violent, let them be violent. There will be civil war.”

Islamists are taking the opposition’s campaign against Morsi to heart, according to Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Doha Center who studies the Muslim Brotherhood. The tone among Morsi’s supporters, he says, has shifted from “the language of politics” to “the language of survival” in recent months. “They fear that the opposition and the old regime are trying to destroy Morsi’s presidency by any means necessary, including outside of the democratic process,” Hamid says. “Political violence is a reality now in Egypt. These are issues that are being discussed.”

As Hamid points out, small outbreaks of such violence have already occurred. After anti-Morsi protests at the palace in early December, Brotherhood members tried to clear away activists camped there, setting off a night of deadly street clashes. According to reports at the time, the Brotherhood members detained, beat, and interrogated some activists, apparently convinced that the protests were part of a foreign-backed plot. Morsi’s supporters, in addition to surrounding media city, also blocked access to Egypt’s high court to stop an expected ruling on the new Constitution. On the opposition’s end, protesters routinely clash with police, often throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. “There is the sense that each group is taking matters into their own hands … that people have one foot in and one foot out of the democratic process,” Hamid says.

One senior Brotherhood member says the group often fears that the authorities will fail to protect Morsi—and points to the incident in which they cleared the protesters from the palace as one example, calling the resulting clashes a “mini civil war.”

“Right now, the Brotherhood goes out every day the opposition protests,” he says, and adds that they have largely remained peaceful. “They are letting the police and Army take on the protesters. And when they fail, [the Brotherhood members] are ready to take [the protesters] on and face them.”

There has been a concerted movement away from violence on Egypt’s religious right, notes Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer at England’s University of Exeter and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Joining the Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafi fronts on the political scene are former jihadi groups such as al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and some factions from its smaller counterpart, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. While these groups preach nonviolence now, Ashour says, “they’re still very proud of their armed past. They usually remind interviewers that they put down their arms in a democratization process, and they happily took them up under a dictatorship.”

Morsi has lately suffered a split with the country’s main Salafi political force, the al-Nour Party, which has joined the opposition’s calls for a unity government. But Nezar Ghorab, the vice president of Islamic Jihad’s new political arm, the Peace & Development Party, says that while the various Islamist groups have their differences with Morsi, they also regard him as their standard-bearer—and would unite against any attempt to remove him. “We are usually referred to as terrorists. We agreed to be confined to the ballot box. So those who want us to ignore [it] are the terrorists,” Ghorab says. “Since there is an opportunity for everybody to participate in the democratic process, we will be participating in that process. And we also still have the force to protect Muslims or Sharia law from any threat.”

Sheikh Gamal Saber, a fiery Hazemon member often regarded as the group’s spokesman, also enjoys the status of a political up-and-comer. He gives interviews from his new political office, which is still under construction. Sitting at a plastic table surrounded by dangling wires and bare concrete walls, he dismisses the protests against Morsi as a “look-alike revolution. The pretend revolution.” The opposition, he contends, is trying to draw Islamists into violence in order to further delegitimize Morsi, and possibly to incite the Army to step in. “They know we can beat them up—easy. But we are being very careful,” he says. “Their actions are out of control, and still the Islamists are holding back.”

Still, he adds, “it’s very reasonable for people to turn to other methods if democracy fails.”