Egypt’s Coming Civil War

Three months ago, Egypt’s military seized power in a coup that it said was necessary both to prevent civil war and to restore democracy. By now it is clear that the military is failing on both counts.

Today, suspected Islamists at least nine soldiers and police in attacks. Yesterday, security forces killed 51 pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters at a rally in Cairo that, according to witnesses, had been entirely peaceful. Meanwhile, the country continues to live under a nightly curfew.

None of this resembles what Egypt’s defense minister and de facto ruler, General Abdelfatah al-Seesi, continues to say he wants for his country: reconciliation, economic growth and a quick return to rule by elected civilian governments. Indeed, civil war looks like a far more real threat today than when al-Seesi and the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s first elected president, on July 3.

Al-Seesi has strong financial backing in the form of $12 billion in loans from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, who support his policy of attempting to snuff out the Brotherhood in the country of its birth. This has allowed him to announce a stimulus package for the economy. And he remains popular: At a celebration yesterday to mark the country’s 1973 war with Israel, al-Seesi was cheered enthusiastically.

Al-Seesi’s problem is that he will succeed only if the economy does -- and that demands political stability, for which even the $12 billion in aid from the Gulf can’t substitute. He should remember that the Arab Spring was triggered above all by a sense of economic injustice and failure, as was the upswell of popular anger against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their supporters have no incentive to let al-Seesi succeed where Mursi failed: They won’t go home until their leaders are out of jail, have a stake in the political process and tell their supporters to leave the streets.

The Brotherhood learned this destabilizing tactic from the old military-backed establishment, which continued to run the country’s bureaucracies and security forces after former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Although Mursi was a terrible president, who focused on securing power rather than fixing the economy, old-regime bureaucrats did what they could to block any progress he might have made. The economy remained stalled as a result.

Al-Seesi needs to be convinced, sooner rather than later, that the 20 percent to 30 percent of Egypt’s population that supports Islamist parties and movements can’t be marginalized peacefully, and that he won’t succeed in crushing the Brotherhood, a cultlike movement that has survived numerous such attempts since its formation in 1928. The resulting instability will instead go on damping investment and growth.

Persuading the general to change course won’t be easy. The influence of the U.S. and European Union has proved to be extremely limited in Egypt, so most of the burden will have to fall on Egypt’s secular leaders and politicians, who for now continue to support him and his zero-sum crackdown on the Brotherhood.

General al-Seesi is right that avoiding civil conflict trumps all other concerns in Egypt. The question, for his supporters as well as opponents, is why he is promoting one.

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