Egypt’s fate in balance amid warnings of war

Armed conflict has been predicted by foreign commentators – but the greater threat is Egypt becoming a failed state.

Riot police in Cairo
Government forces have the backing of the people, analysts say [Reuters]

Cairo – The crisis currently hitting Egypt is an open wound evident even to those who do not follow the political fight between an interim government struggling for control and the supporters of a deposed president refusing to admit defeat.

It’s seen in the regular violent episodes that leave scores dead, usually on the side of those supporting the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi.

It’s visible in the burned and gutted buildings in Giza, Nasr Square and Rabaa.

It takes form in regular, random clashes between people on the street, paranoid, shouting, arming themselves with clubs and forming civilian roadblocks all over the city.

It’s no wonder then the possibility of Egypt falling into failed state status – a government failing in legitimacy and providing basic services and functions – or spiralling into a civil war, has dominated much of the international discourse on the country’s future.

International analysts, pundits and diplomats warn that if left unchecked, the violence in Egypt could escalate into civil war.

However, Egyptian commentators disagree. They say that the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opponent to the military-backed government, could never become an effective armed group, and is losing support. Besides, the Brotherhood has never threatened war to achieve its aim of the return of its president.

However, the country faces the very real danger of becoming a failed state, according to political analyst Amr Adly, if the political crisis continues to drag on.

The country was teetering on the brink of failure even before the latest bout of violence. The 2013 Fund for Peace Failed State Index ranked Egypt’s status as critical, naming it the 34th least-stable country out of 178.

Given the political instability, a month-long declared state of emergency called by the interim regime, and the disruption of banking and financial markets, the situation does not look set to improve for some time to come.

Economically, the country has been struggling for some time, and the recent political upheavals have not helped.

“We will have a long transitional period, and with that comes all the instability and violence that will continue to endanger state institutions,” said Adly.

Government bonds and the EGX30, Egypt’s security stock index, have slumped. Shops and restaurants in most quarters of the capital remained closed for a third day as cash machines ran dry in downtown Cairo.

Even the $12 billion or so in aid from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait is unlikely to get Egypt through the current turmoil.

“This can’t support Egypt’s transitional period for more than five or six months – maybe a year. It can’t be counted on as the Brotherhood counted on money from Qatar during Morsi’s time,” said Adly.

He added that the current interim government “does not have a political mandate to tackle the economic issues –  this isn’t a caretaker government that can cut expenses, cut subsidies and raise taxes.

And what’s really needed for economic stability – political stability – is nowhere in sight.

Still, Adly noted that the Brotherhood was a non-ruling minority and had no chance of getting the sort of support needed to be a real threat to the state.

“Egypt is not Syria,” he said.

‘Exaggerated threat’

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, agreed, and said he was even optimistic about the country’s future, and that the threats of civil meltdown or war were “very much exaggerated”.

“There will be no civil war or failed state,” said Nafaa, adding that he believed the crisis had a silver lining.

“Although it is a fact that the Brotherhood has never before challenged the state apparatus in such an open way – but they are losers.” The majority of Egyptians were with the army and security forces, he added.

“The Brotherhood are now seen for what they really are…a group with links to old terrorism groups. In the long run, this is good for the country because it means Egypt will shuffle its cards and move toward establishing a real democratic system.”

Political analyst Abdallah al-Sennawy agreed, saying that while there was a possibility of armed confrontation, the Brotherhood did not have the support necessary to become a true threat to government or social unity.

While the recent violent episodes – including the clearing of two pro-Morsi sit-ins that left over 600 dead – had created an anxious atmosphere in the country, it has also galvanised Egyptians against the Brotherhood.

That, al-Sennawy told Al Jazeera, made a civil war unlikely.

‘The state is strong’

“The Egyptian state is strong and is backed by strong popular support,” he said. “There might be a temporary and limited terrorist threat but the state will be able to conquer it within a few months, just like it conquered terrorism in the 1990s.”

He said that Friday’s clashes in Ramses Square, which left at least 95 dead after a coalition of protesters against the military held a rally there, was “the peak” of the crises which “will not be repeated”.

He said the Brotherhood had lost popular support, and that any resort to violence would be an “expression of despair, not a sign of power.

Nabil Naeem, a former leading figure in the Al-Jama’a al-Jihadiya armed group, said he believed that no one in Egypt had the means of challenging the military in open conflict.

“The Brotherhood … has not turned into an armed group because its leaders are not capable,” said Naeem.

He said that the armed groups in the largely lawless Sinai region, would be considerably weakened once the  Brotherhood became unable to offer them financial support and political cover.

Naeem also said that such groups would remain limited in the peninsula, and would be arrested if they attempted to move around the country.

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Source: Al Jazeera