Egypt at Risk of Civil War

Egypt at Risk of Civil War

Political violence and repression could intersect with the region's dangerous weapons flows.


The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi on July 3 prompted much concern that Egypt stands on the brink of civil war. Watching events unfold from Cairo over the past months, though, it has been clear to me—and many of my Egyptian friends and colleagues—that the country has been slowly sliding towards war for months. Events since Morsi’s downfall suggest that the early stages of a civil war may already be here.

The turning point came on December 5, 2012, with the first major incident of nonsectarian civilian-on-civilian political violence since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The fighting broke out when Muslim Brotherhood cadres, chanting, “with our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Islam” attacked demonstrators outside Ittihadiyya Presidential Palace in Cairo. The demonstrators—largely members of the secular opposition—were protesting against Morsi’s effort to rush ratification of a constitution favorable to Islamist political parties. Thousands of civilians ended up fighting each other in the streets with stones, wooden clubs, knives, and homemade guns. The clashes left several dead and hundreds injured.


The casualties from this violence, however, were not just human—the incident also shattered what was left of Egypt’s already-fragile national psyche. Egyptian society has long been divided along several lines, but the alarming intensity of the clashes on December 5 was unprecedented and forced an even more severe polarization.

Although many Egyptians stayed on the sidelines, as is often the case in such situations, two camps emerged: those with Morsi and those against him. To those with Morsi, the struggle to maintain his increasingly authoritarian rule was framed as a battle to protect Islam itself. While most of Morsi’s opponents were Muslim, the Brotherhood’s media outlets and sympathizers often essentialized them as atheists and Coptic Christians. To those on the other side, the confrontation was not just about removing Morsi, now viewed as an illegitimate ruler. It was also aimed at stopping a radical clique with an alien worldview from stealing Egypt’s identity.

From December 5 on, the battle for Egypt’s future was not simply waged between political figures, it was also fought on the streets. Previously unheard of bloody clashes occasionally broke out between the two camps, facilitated by the security vacuum plaguing Egypt since 2011. The most prominent of these skirmishes occurred on March 22, 2013, when pro- and anti-Morsi civilians fought each other outside the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo. The clashes left at least one person dead and several hundred injured.

After the violence on March 22, each camp painted the other as the aggressor. Media figures on both ends of the spectrum portrayed their opponents as nothing more than “thugs.” Each side of the divide also increasingly used dehumanizing language, with the pro-Morsi camp referring to their opponents as “infidels” and the anti-Morsi crowd branding members of the Brotherhood as “sheep”—i.e. mindless followers.

As the mass demonstrations against Morsi scheduled for June 30, 2013 approached, the alarming level of polarization in Egyptian society was clear for all to see. After millions took to the streets to call for Morsi’s removal and General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi delivered on their demands, this alarming polarization rose to dangerous levels. Since Morsi’s ouster, the occasional civilian-on-civilian clashes characterizing the post-December 5 period have become regular and increasingly deadly. Fighting since the ouster has claimed over one hundred lives and left over a thousand injured.

When el-Sisi announced the removal of Morsi, he clearly aligned the military with the anti-Morsi camp. In doing so, el-Sisi incentivized both sides to escalate what was low-scale civil strife into something much more serious. With the military behind it, the anti-Morsi crowd now believes it has the ability to neutralize the Brotherhood—an organization it openly refers to as a terrorist group—once and for all. Morsi supporters now feel they are facing an existential threat since the military chose a side and began a crackdown on the Brotherhood’s leadership, awakening ghosts of persecutions past. As a result, the vitriolic discourse of both sides rocketed to previously unimaginable levels, with elements of both camps calling for outright elimination of their opponents. Most Egyptians do not endorse these views, but more extreme forces may drown out the moderate majority out as long as street battles continue and hatred is further engrained.

The transformation of Egypt’s low-scale civil strife into what could be the beginning stages of a civil war pitting the military, police and anti-Morsi civilians against the Brotherhood and its more radical allies is worrying on its own. Yet Egypt does not exist in isolation. The country is part and parcel of North Africa, a region fundamentally reshapen over the past two years. The uprisings of 2011 heralded the arrival of a new reality in the region—a reality including weak state structures, poor regional coordination, and relatively ungoverned borders, all combining to facilitate weapons transfers from Libya.

It is not terribly difficult to smuggle weapons from Libya into Egypt. The border is fairly porous and tribes straddling it, such as the Awlad Ali, serve as natural transnational networks facilitating the movement of goods and people. On numerous occasions over the past year, Egyptian security forces interdicted vehicles transporting Libyan weaponry across northwestern Egypt—reflective of a broader weapons-smuggling trend. The final destination of most weapons smuggled across the Egyptian-Libyan border, thus far, has been the northern Sinai Peninsula or the Gaza Strip. Credible reports indicate that Bedouin and jihadist groups in the Sinai possess handguns, rifles, antiaircraft guns and heavy artillery from Libya. As the conflict in Egypt intensifies, either side of the divide may tap into these preexisting smuggling networks spanning the country to gain an advantage in street battles previously fought with homemade weapons. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Brotherhood already drew on these networks recently in coordination with its Libyan branch in an attempt to smuggle wanted Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie out of Egypt.

It will be incredibly difficult to end the ongoing conflict in Egypt if heavier weapons are introduced. Street battles could result in hundreds of deaths instead of hundreds of injuries—creating a vicious cycle of violence. The Egyptian military has a brief window of opportunity to deescalate the conflict now by removing itself as a participant. Only then can it forge a sustainable resolution to the crisis that incorporates both the pro- and anti-Morsi camps in a political process. At this point, however, neither the military nor the Brotherhood is willing to make the necessary concessions for such a process to begin. Unless both groups change course and a resolution is quickly reached, Egypt could become mired in a long-term, deadly civil war that renders all hopes of a transition to democracy null and void.

Jacob Burke is a Middle East-based MENA analyst at Caerus Associates, a strategy and design firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Al Jazeera. CC BY 2.0.