It’s not a civil war yet, but Friday night’s events underline the level of strife in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters and the military. For now, the army still enjoys the backing of many secular groups, and even that of Salafist Muslims. But as the body count rises, that impressive support will slowly, inevitably erode.
Even the number of dead was up for argument Saturday. While the Muslim Brotherhood claims more than 120 people died in overnight clashes, the health ministry put the number at “only” 29. Discrepancies also exist in the estimates of how many people actually took part in Friday’s protests across the country. The media’s claim that 30 million people went out to demonstrate either for or against the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to swallow. Anyway you look at it, the notion that one out of every three Egyptians took to the streets seems like a stretch. However, even if it wasn’t 30 million, it is clear that millions of citizens are taking sides. The Egyptian divide is bitter, and the rival camps are highly motivated.
Clarity is emerging in some areas. For one thing, it is apparent that Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi cares little about the honor of Egypt’s citizens. Unlike former president Hosni Mubarak, who could not order the army to fire on protesters, el-Sissi not only can, but is more than willing to do so. The order came down and, on Friday, we could see a change in the army’s attitude towards the protesters. The government, the new president Adly Mansour, everyone, has decided to take off the gloves and put an end to the protests in favor of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
But cracks are already beginning to show in the anti-Islamist coalition. One leading former Muslim Brotherhood supporter, turned rival, Abd Al-Munim Abu-Fattouh, a former presidential contender, condemned Friday night’s slaughter and blamed the president and the defense minister for it.
A second factor becoming clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood has no intention of going gentle into that good night, no matter how much it costs in supporters’ blood. The Islamist movement is determined to flood the streets of Egypt with its people, and gradually turn all those who supported the second revolution against the military. Right now, that seems like an impossible goal, but as the number of dead increases, things may change.
The battle is far from over. “Iron Man” el-Sissi is out to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Islamists are convinced that they can topple the general. If Egypt doesn’t get back on track — economically and administratively — in the next few weeks, even the army’s strong-handed policy toward the Brotherhood will not produce stability. Tensions will rise further, and the danger of full-fledged civil war will draw ever closer.