Egypt on Slippery Slope Toward Civil War

Tuesday, 11 Oct 2011 03:31 PM

By Arnaud de Borchgrave

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Hours before Cairo's latest bloody explosion this week, one of Egypt's most prominent and influential businessmen, in a private message to friends abroad, warned the Arab Spring was dead and that next month's elections could trigger "a major conflict with blood in the streets."

The latest explosion was triggered by a clash between the police and Christian Copts (10 percent of Egypt's population of 85 million) protesting an attack that torched a church. The Copts are also opposed to the army's boot-dragging in turning politics over to civilians.

One of al-Jazeera's cameras caught an armored personnel carrier running over demonstrators, crushing six, including one whose skull exploded. Thousands soon appeared with knives, machetes, and clubs. Christian crosses were held aloft as the crowd scattered. Several jumped over the parapet into the Nile.

The bloody clashes seesawed along the Nile Corniche on both sides of the state TV building.

Muslims who joined the demonstration seemed to split between those who sided with the military and those who tried to shield the Christians. The bloodiest clashes since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last February left 26 dead and some 200 wounded.

The confidential message that reached Western contacts earlier the same day said elections, scheduled for next month, will produce a near majority for the Muslim Brotherhood, or, if canceled or postponed, will trigger a bloody conflict in the streets of Cairo and other cities.

Conditions will then be ripe for a sectarian or civil war. Many Egyptians have already packed and gone elsewhere. The stock exchange has lost half its value.

To transition in good order to an elected government, Egypt must have a prolonged period of stability. No one sees this coming.

Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), which controlled the last national assembly, was dissolved but its members regrouped and divided their numbers among newly formed parties, e.g., Renaissance Egypt, Egyptian Citizen Party, Freedom Party, with the aim of regrouping in a run-off to block religious extremists.

Their common objective is to short circuit a religious state coupled with Islamist forces that blend religion and political action. Violence-prone Salafists stoked the latest violence in Cairo.

It was the late President Anwar Sadat who laid the foundations for NDP in 1978. And it was Sadat's nephew Talaat who was chairman of the party before it was dissolved by the military on April 16.

Talaat Sadat is emerging as the new leader of a group of political parties that plan to coalesce to build a national front to block the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Modern Egypt Party is led by a prominent businessman and includes NDP veterans. Senior Muslim Brotherhood officials told senior army generals in charge they expect former NDP members of parliament to be banned from participating in the forthcoming elections.

Either way, for or against the inclusion of former NDP stalwarts now scattered among half a dozen new parties, the ruling military's decision is bound to provoke fresh demonstrations — and bloodshed.

Youth movements that spearheaded the Jan. 25 Revolution have weighed in for a five-year ban on former members of the old parliament in the next elections.

Opponents of the Mubarak regime say that NDP "remnants" are "as dangerous as Islamist forces and must be banned from participating in the political life of Egypt."

The path toward elections at the end of November is strewn with booby traps, each one with the potential to trigger clashes in the capital.

The confidential message from one of Egypt's major players said, "Common sense and rationality have disappeared and the military, while trying to keep some keel to the process, have daily fires to deal with, e.g., disruptions in hospitals, educational sector in disarray, court rulings revoking privatizations that happened over 10 years ago, cancellation of licenses for plants built and that employ thousands of workers, a now-dysfunctional banking sector and heightened risk of sudden court rulings, strikes in public transport, riots and demonstrations, populist mania by aspiring politicians, a totally frantic and irresponsible media, major weapons smuggling from Libya and Gaza, and an economy looking into the abyss with the stock exchange falling off the cliff, not to mention 'no new investments'."

Salafist extremists seem to believe the time is ripe to take on Christian Copts. This could easily explode into the kind of sectarian violence Pakistan has suffered as Shiite and Sunni Muslims torch each other's mosques.

Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Their history covers more than 19 centuries. Their women don't wear a veil or otherwise cover their faces.

Christianity was introduced in the first century A.D. during the Roman period. Egypt is in the Bible as the refuge the holy family sought in its flight from Judea.

The Christian School of Alexandria was founded by St. Mark and is the oldest such establishment in the world.

The Arab Muslim invasion of Egypt didn't take place till 639 A.D. Gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries changed Egypt from a Christian to a mainly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century.

Since Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution, the army has been the most powerful player as the guardian of stability. It owns at least one-third of the economy. And many businessmen who did well through their army connections are faithful guardians of the status quo. The army is divided over whether it should stand pat — or give up some of its privileges.

Egypt also remains of enormous strategic value to the United States, e.g., guardian of the Suez Canal, automatic authorization for U.S. military overflights, and ally in the confrontation with Iran (though this has weakened since Mubarak's overthrow). In return, Egypt gets $2 billion a year in U.S. military aid.

As of now, the Egyptian military has no interest in undermining its strategic interests with the United States — and Israel. Depending on who emerges victorious from a messy — and most probably bloody — election campaign, the geostrategic comfort zone may shrink perceptibly.



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