Yet another orgy of violence has left the public perplexed. Last Friday’s round of violence and counter-violence during protests in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Muqattam was followed by the now customary exchange of blame as to who was responsible. The more pressing question, however, is whether such violent scenes are a prelude to a much grimmer phase as Egypt slips slowly, but surely, into the black hole of civil strife.
At no time since the 25 January Revolution have the words civil strife been bandied around so frequently.
“Egypt is going through latent civil strife which could explode at any moment,” warns Hossam Eissa, Ain Shams University law professor and former member of the Dostour Party. It is a view widely shared by Egypt’s chattering classes.
“The street wars witnessed on Friday are only a rehearsal for what civil strife will be like,” commentator Abdallah Al-Sinnawi wrote in Al-Shorouk. “We are slipping towards civil strife along Lebanese lines, where it lasted 14 years.” If such views ignore the huge differences between the Egyptian and Lebanese social, ethnic and political contexts, they nonetheless reflect growing concern among large segments of public opinion that “something sinister and evil is taking place on the ground”, threatening Egypt’s nascent democratic experience.
Frightening scenes of violence between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and their opponents triggered an embittered debate about how, 26 months since the revolution that unseated Hosni Mubarak, protests which, in the words of activist Mona Seif, were a means to resist an unjust authority have been transformed into a means to terrorise political rivals who were once partners in the revolution.
Observers register changing attitudes towards the use of violence in the Egyptian political scene. Violence, says Hanaa Ebeid of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, was once the exclusive property of either the state or some anonymous third party. “The post-revolution narrative was that violence is committed by a third party with the aim of driving a wedge between revolutionary forces and the people,” she wrote in a recent study on the roots and causes of political violence in Egypt.
The transitional period, according to Ebeid, carried the seeds of what she describes as “a triangle of violence”: its symbolic, physical and structural components fed one into another. A polarised society and political arena saw violent rhetoric reach unprecedented levels, manipulated as a tool in the hands of politicians on both sides. “Such attitudes towards verbal violence paved the way for physical violence against rivals and have even made it socially acceptable,” concludes Ebeid.
The Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) Mohamed Al-Beltagui argues the growth of violence is a “natural outcome” of the huge network of interests represented by former regime men. It is, he charges, “lavishly funded by businessmen and tycoons who run a network staffed by thugs and former state security officers”. That this political violence be committed against Brotherhood supporters with such venom is only to be expected, he wrote on his Facebook page.
Al-Beltagui’s analysis exemplifies one aspect of the problem: the way participants in the confrontations seek to monopolise the role of victim. Political violence took a more radical form with Al-Ittihadiya palace battles of December 2012 when anti-Brotherhood protesters organised a sit-in in front of the presidential palace. Since then anti-Brotherhood protesters have systematically dehumanised Muslim Brotherhood supporters while the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists stigmatise protesters as hired thugs paid to induce chaos in order to provide the army with a pretext to intervene.
But why would groups and organisations which originally emphasised spontaneity and grassroots democracy resort to such brutal tactics rather than legitimate political action. One explanation is both sides belong to a generation socialised in politics under a police state. “Both parties are inflicting the same torture used against them by state security officers during Mubarak’s reign. This is how they define politics,” says one observer.
The cycle of violence and counter-violence is fuelled, argues journalist Alaa Bayoumi, by the rise of “radical secular groups” whose opposition to the Brotherhood is undermining whatever remained of the revolution. These “hate groups”, says Bayoumi, provide moral justifications for attacking political rivals in the name of the greater good — in this case the lost revolution. The same logic applies to the other side. In the name of religion Brotherhood supporters use the same tactics against their rivals.
Islamists, however, claim they are deterred by some red lines, most important of which is not to be dragged into civil strife. This might explain why the Brothers were left to fight their battle with no assistance from other Islamist forces. Assem Abdel-Maged of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya may have been speaking what is on the mind of Islamists across the spectrum when he said that such brutal violence was part of a larger scheme to push Islamists into a vicious cycle of violence and provide the army with a pretext to take over. This could explain repeated calls on the Islamists’ rank and file, particularly among angry youth groups, not to allow themselves to be dragged into confrontation.
“We will never be dragged into civil war,” says Essam Al-Erian, deputy FJP head. His comrades, however, continue to make remarks about how their younger cadres are reaching “boiling point”.
Although some observers downplay the notion that Egypt stands on the brink of civil strife, they argue that attempts to resolve political conflicts through street wars is a major cause for concern.
Cairo University politics professor Heba Raouf Ezzat believes the most dangerous aspect of this “complicated phenomenon” is when violence stops being a spontaneous act of angry protesters and becomes something planned.
“What is striking now are the organised acts of violence. It begins when known parties use varying degrees of force which then gets out of control. Groups of hired thugs then enter the scene and take over.”
It was this organised form of violence to which Al-Beltagui referred when he spoke of a network of 300,000 thugs for hire.
“This is what feeds the violence,” he said.
Some of the Brotherhood’s opponents beg to differ. It is the Ikhwan’s militias, recipients of paramilitary training and armed to the teeth, who are responsible, they claim.
Publisher Hisham Kassem takes issue with the notion of an Ikhwan militia. He concluded in a lengthy article about militias in Egypt that there was no evidence to suggest that the Brotherhood’s rank and file receive military training of any kind.
“What we have been seeing until now is groups of riffraff and outlaws rather than an organised militia,” he wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 14 March.
Few see an obvious end to the violence given the lethal combination of a weak presidency which has failed to meet any of the demands of the revolution and does not appear serious about national reconciliation, a Muslim Brotherhood desperate to grab all strategic levers of power and a political opposition that has failed to articulate a sound alternative political vision and that lacks any significant grassroots organisation.
The bulk of activists — even those summoned by the prosecutor-general for allegedly inciting violence — have little, if any, control in a street that increasingly glorifies violence and holds all forms of authority in contempt.
“Violence and street wars are becoming the only channel for the anger and frustration of Egyptians who feel betrayed by the elite, both ruling and opposition,” one activist told Al-Ahram Weekly.