It has been over a week since Egypt’s first democratically elected president was ousted by the Egyptian army after mass protests. But violence has already erupted between the followers of Mohamed Morsi and his opponents, the army and security forces, leading many commentators to speculate that Egypt is heading for civil war. The broader implications of the most recent crisis in the Middle East could be catastrophic—not just for Egypt but also for a region that is already teetering at the brink.
As the diverse opposition protesters were still celebrating after General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi announced that the constitution had been suspended and Mohamed Morsi was no longer president of Egypt, the country’s security services had already begun a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. While Morsi and key members of his presidential team have been detained and brought to undisclosed locations, arrest warrants for an additional three hundred Muslim Brotherhood members and close Morsi allies were also issued. Moreover, five Islamist TV channels have so far been shut down, the Cairo offices of al-Jazeera have been raided and its managing director Ayman Gaballah arrested.
While the majority of the protesters who called for Morsi’s resignation continue to support the intervention by the army as a necessary measure to safeguard the 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters have taken to the streets to voice their anger and demand the reinstatement of Morsi as president. Clashes between Morsi supporters and Islamists on the one side and Morsi opponents, the police forces and the military on the other have already resulted in fatalities approaching a hundred, with many thousands more injured.
Meanwhile, jihadists in the Sinai have blown up a pipeline transporting gas to Jordan. Three police officers were killed in a drive-by shooting. According to the Israeli intelligence-news website Debkafile, a secret Muslim Brotherhood cell, in cohorts with radical Salafists and Hamas, is planning a campaign of terror out of the Sinai directed against Israel and the Suez canal. And as reported in the Jerusalem Post, a Sinai-based jihadist group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes has claimed responsibility for firing two rockets at the Israeli city of Eilat (although Israeli security forces could not confirm that any rockets had indeed hit Eilat). In response to the incidents in the Sinai, the Egyptian army has already closed the border crossings with Gaza and Israel as well as, according to Debkafile, “all three underground passages running from the mainland to Sinai under the Suez Canal.”
As a result of the heavy-handed response by the security services against pro-Morsi demonstrators, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is now openly calling for a full-fledged uprising against the army and the new interim government. After the killing of over fifty pro-Morsi protesters on Monday during a confrontation with security services outside the Republican Guard headquarters, where Morsi is suspected to be held, violence is set to further spiral out of control in the coming days.
If the new Egyptian political leadership and the army do not manage to get the security situation in Egypt under control immediately, and find some way to bring the Brotherhood back into the political fold, a civil war—or more realistically, a prolonged Islamist insurgency—may become inevitable. It might, however, already be too late, as the Brotherhood’s rejection of the announced timetable for new elections by interim president Adly Mansour indicates.
So what are the wider implications of what has transpired in Egypt since last Wednesday? An immediate danger lies in the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will conclude from this episode that while democracy brought them to power, it won’t keep them there. They might even decide that since not even the self-professed liberals and secularists have played by the rules, it is now time to forsake the democratic process altogether and instead revert to the old game of authoritarian politics and survival of the fittest, where political power falls to the strongest or the most violent party.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has in many ways been considered the mother movement of all Islamists and of Islamic revivalism more generally—and as such has been held in a very high esteem. Also, obtaining power in Egypt has remained prominent on the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, since it regards Egypt as a potentially powerful weapon in the pursuit of its regional goals. Pushed against the wall in Egypt, and facing the possibility of a similar fate in Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen and Syria, where it is also threatened by the opposition it faces from secularists, liberals and former (or current) regime loyalists, the Brotherhood may now decide to make common cause with more radical Salafist groups.
It previously shied away from going down this route, arguably because it did not want to jeopardise its improving international reputation, and because its was the main beneficiary of the democratic opening in the wake of the Arab Spring. But if the Brotherhood now decides that democracy no longer works, it could be tempted to pursue its ultimate goal of a reconstituted Islamic caliphate by more radical means and in partnership with the Salafists.
Depending on how the next few weeks in Egypt are handled, and whether the military and the new political leadership manage to retain their grip on power, there is one potential benefit in what has just transpired in Egypt: The end of Brotherhood power in Egypt might allow the Obama administration to more actively pursue a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict and prevent a very dangerous regional conflagration.
To put this into its proper context, recent events in Egypt represent the third setback for the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its regional ambitions in a matter of only a few weeks. Although events in Egypt can arguably be regarded as the potentially biggest blow for the Brotherhood, recent news with regard to Qatar and Turkey have been particularly detrimental for the movement’s ambitions in Syria, where it has represented the most important actor in the official political opposition groups such as the Syrian National Coalition.
News that Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani would replace his father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa as the emir of Qatar, and that Hamad bin Jassim would also cede his positions as prime minister and foreign minister, might foreshadow a change in Qatar’s policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood in general and the conflict in Syria in particular. While Hamad bin Khalifa is known to have had a very rocky relationship with the Saudis, to say the least, and was the strongest financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis hate, his son is said to be on much better terms with Saudi Arabia and seeking to improve relations between the two Sunni Gulf monarchies. Al-Thani has endorsed the recent regime change in Egypt and congratulated Egypt’s new interim president Mansour upon the ouster of Morsi, which might indicate a change in Qatar’s attitude towards the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood must also face the ongoing domestic crisis in Turkey, which has much to do with the widespread public opposition to the pro-Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist policies of Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP party, as well as Turkey’s role in the Syrian imbroglio. While Erdogan, whose party is known to have strong ties to the Brotherhood, has strongly denounced the coup in Egypt, he has also scaled back on Turkey’s efforts in Syria in recent weeks. The Turkish government only announced in late June that it would no longer allow Turkey to be used as a conduit for the transportation of arms to Syrian rebels. In light of the recapturing by the Syrian army of the town of Qusayr, which served as another supply line for the rebels from Lebanon, this leaves only Jordan as a key transit point for weapons to reach Syrian rebel fighters.
What happened in Egypt then, when considered in the context of the latest news from Qatar and Turkey, must be regarded as a huge victory for the Sunni Arab Gulf states, and especially for Saudi Arabia, which is strongly opposed to the regional ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in the Syrian conflict. But it remains to be seen whether the overall loss of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the reduced role of Qatar and Turkey in the Syrian crisis, will encourage Obama and his allies to pursue more wholeheartedly a diplomatic solution in Syria, one of cooperation with Russia and ideally also Iran.
Yet if these changes only lead to a rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as a more united opposition emerging in Syria that causes the Obama administration to continue to seek the eventual departure of Bashar al-Assad, then the opportunity afforded by the weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood will have been wasted. The distinct possibility of a wider regional war will remain strong.
Chris Luenen is a senior research fellow and the head of the Geopolitics Programme at the Global Policy Institute (GPI) in London.
Image: Flickr/Lilian Wagdy. CC BY 2.0.