Long-standing grievances between Islamist parties and the military; a government resorting to extreme violence to put down its opponents; a community bitterly fractured along political lines — Egypt is starting to look disturbingly like Algeria in the 1990s, when an election that would have installed an Algerian Islamist party to power was overturned, plunging the country into a decade of civil war.

Comparisons are dangerous, of course. But it’s worth asking whether Egypt’s near future will be anything like that of Algeria’s, given recent events. With a political battle between the military-backed interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood playing out in violent protests, where to from here for Egypt? Will we see an Egyptian civil war? Or will the promise of elections restore democratic order?

“At the moment it is extremely difficult to predict how the situation will evolve,” Australian National University’s director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Professor Amin Saikal, told Crikey. “There is a slight possibility that the military will be able to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and bring a degree of order, but there will be elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that will resist authorities, which means that protests could continue.”

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Saikal sees the key to Egypt’s stability as the government’s ability to foster political pluralism.

This seems unlikely. The government appears determined to quash any attempts by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to regain their place in Egypt’s political landscape. Hazem el-Beblawi, Egypt’s interim prime minister, has gone so far as to call for the Muslim Brotherhood’s dissolution. Many of the party’s leaders have been jailed and face treason charges. That the government has adopted heavy-handed measures against the Brotherhood’s supporters is by now well known; over 900 people have been killed in demonstrations, with the death toll rising daily.

“The best course of action would be to promote a process of national reconciliation and try to integrate the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process — unlike the situation as it stands, with many leaders being in jail and under watch by authorities,” Saikal said.

What does all this mean for Egyptians? There’s talk of Egypt becoming a failed state, and that sectarian conflict between the military and Islamists will devolve into all-out civil war.

Abdel al-Ghafar, a PhD scholar at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says it’s doubtful Egypt will suffer the same fate as its neighbours, as it has a largely homogeneous population of mostly Sunni Muslims. “Egypt will not go into full civil war like Syria or Libya … but what we will see is a cycle of violence and counter-violence as the government tries to quell the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“Whether the military is able to play neutral role in political process and institute genuine process that is participatory is in doubt.”

Even if it does not lead to civil war, the government’s hard-line approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood could push the movement underground. This would also have dangerous consequences for security in Egypt, according to Saikal.

“The more people are killed, the more people will play into hands of the radical movement,” he said. “The whole region is awash with weapons, and it would not be very difficult for some of these elements to lay their hands on more weapons from different directions.”

Weapons trafficking from Libya has already exacerbated domestic conflicts in countries like Mali, where Islamist rebel fighters used weapons flowing out of Libya after the collapse of the Gaddafi government.

Mohamed Khairat, founder of EgyptianStreets.com, says he is optimistic the current bloodshed will soon come to an end. “The violence we’re witnessing will eventually subside. Within a few months we should see stability with elections — whether that leads to democracy is another matter,” he said.

Interim president Adly Mansour has scheduled elections for 2014, where Egyptians will vote on a new parliament and president, and pass an amended constitution by referendum. But the Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the plan outright.

There are fears, too, that the government will return to the kind of authoritarian rule Egyptians witnessed under Morsi’s government. These fears are largely unfounded, according to Noah Basil, lecturer and member of the Centre for Middle Eastern African Studies at Macquarie University.

“[The government] has reconstituted the emergency laws, but said that it will be temporary. A lot of it is about symbolism, but what they’re saying quite clearly to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists groups through force is that… it won’t let them dismantle the power of military,” he said.

Egyptian-born Mohamad Khairait agreed: “I don’t think the military will try to create a state that is autocratic. It will push democracy, but with military means. I’ve seen people cheering support of the death of Islamists … what that shows is that they’ve chosen one devil over another.”

Whatever form Egypt’s elected government takes next year, it will face the difficult challenge of rebuilding the country. “There needs to be some sort of national reconciliation also between Egyptian public, which is highly polarised on the one hand supporting former president Morsi and those opposed. Whether the military is able to play neutral role in political process and institute genuine process that is participatory is in doubt,” Saikal said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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