Behind the debate about whether the July 3 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi should be considered a popular impeachment or a military coup, there is a basic question: Are things in Egypt going to get better or worse? Egyptians who supported the coup say that it was essential in order to get the country reoriented toward building dawla madania, a “civil state,” which during the Hosni Mubarak era was used to mean a state that was not military and during Morsi era to mean one that was not religious. They also argue that the military had no choice but to step in to avoid strife following enormous anti-Morsi demonstrations on June 30. The furious (and entirely predictable) reaction of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement suggests, however, that Egypt might have great difficulty building a civil state due to serious and chronic violence, which will invite repression and draw the military into politics repeatedly whether it intended to or not.
So if things are likely to get worse, how much worse? Repeated military intervention in the political process, if the violence is limited, could lead Egypt down a path similar to that of Turkey, and eventually civilian institutions might become strong enough to address the country’s problems and to assert real control over the military, which is essential in a democracy. A darker possibility would be a Pakistan-like scenario, in which various players in the military and intelligence intervene in politics and play murky games with jihadi Islamists for many years.
There is an even more frightening possibility. Egypt could become like Algeria, which suffered a decade of civil war and more than 100,000 deaths after the cancellation of elections in December 1991 that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. Until recently, it seemed extremely unlikely that such a thing could happen in Egypt. After all, Algeria, unlike Egypt, had armed Islamist groups before 1991 and a tradition of guerilla warfare going back to its war of independence with France.
But the Egypt of today is not the Egypt of early 2011; in fact, Egypt had already started to change quite a bit in the last several years of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. A culture of street protest has grown, which is now unstoppable without mass repression. Small arms have proliferated, smuggled in from Libya and elsewhere and sold on a vigorous black market; many Egyptians have acquired weapons to defend themselves in the face of a spike in armed robberies and homicide. Hardly a week passes by without reports of a new armed gang, whether of the secular or Islamist variety, with criminal or political intent. Perhaps most troubling, jihadi Islamists have stepped up their activities in the Sinai, openly engaging the Egyptian military and flouting the government’s sovereignty.
Aside from the generally more violent atmosphere, it is unclear how the Muslim Brotherhood will react to this massive political setback. At a minimum there will be a profound Islamist rethinking of the value of political action, but the Brotherhood, unlike related groups such as Hamas, has not used violence for more than 40 years and is not prone to quick pivots. There is a long tradition, however, of individuals and subgroups leaving the Brotherhood to pursue more extreme and violent activity (notably al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as those who formed Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Gama'at), while others have left to pursue peaceful political activity (inter alia the Wasat and Strong Egypt parties).
For now, the Egyptian military and transition government seem to be sending a double signal to the Brotherhood. They are speaking at the same time the language of political inclusion—for example, announcing a reconciliation initiative called “One Nation” aimed at reintegrating Islamists into politics—and of repression. Morsi himself remains in detention by the Republican Guard, while there are daily reports of the planned arrest of senior Brotherhood figures including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei, Deputy Guide Khairat al-Shater, and Freedom and Justice Party head Saad el-Katatni. Possible charges include ordering the use of lethal force against demonstrators at Brotherhood headquarters, breaking out of prison during the 2011 revolution, and insulting the judiciary. The most recent allegations stem from an incident at the Republican Guard headquarters on July 8, in which at least 51 (some estimate as many as 84) protesters in a sit-in and three security officers were killed, and hundreds were injured, with live fire and birdshot. An investigation reportedly is ongoing, but whoever provoked the fight, it is a disturbing indication of the sort of violence to come, which might well trigger or justify mass arrests of Brotherhood supporters.
What could easily happen is a return to the sort of low-level insurgency and domestic terrorism that plagued Egypt during the 1980s and especially the 1990s. That period saw the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, a 1995 unsuccessful attempt on Mubarak’s life, a 1997 attack in which 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed in Luxor, and many other incidents in which jihadi Islamists targeted Christians, liberals, foreigners, and government officials. Tens of thousands of Islamists were imprisoned, often for lengthy periods without charge. The Sinai will probably become much more dangerous than it already has, further setting back efforts to restart tourism and get the economy on track. Clashes between Islamist demonstrators and security forces are likely to continue, and those between armed Islamist and secular gangs might become common.
Will the post-Morsi violence become an actual civil war? Several more shoes would have to drop—a return to arms of the so-called repentant former jihadis, the drift toward extremism of more Brotherhood members, the formation of more and larger armed Islamist units in lightly governed areas of Egypt, such as Sinai and the Western Desert—to bring about that unhappy prospect. But it can no longer be excluded altogether.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s political kaleidoscope will continue to shift, confounding attempts to predict what is coming next (remember how the Brotherhood was unstoppable and going to rule for decades?). It helps to remember that there are not two but at least three major sides—Islamists, secularists, and the state itself—in this fluid game. On the surface, it seems that for now the state and secularists are teamed up against Islamists, but even that is illusory; as Nathan Brown notes, the Salafi Nour Party got its favorite article on Sharia right up front in the interim constitutional declaration.
Egypt now has a modest judge as interim president, prominent liberal Mohammed ElBaradei (hero of the youth activists) as a vice president, and respected economist Hazem Biblawi as prime minister, but how long this configuration will last is anyone’s guess. Will the civilians out front really call the shots, and will they be wise enough to pursue broad political consensus and sensible economic policies more seriously than their Brotherhood predecessors did? Will they resist repression of Islamists by the unreformed coercive apparatus, or give into the temptation to use it against their rivals?
All of these variables will affect how much violence Egypt will see going forward. One way or another, though, there will be a heavy price to pay for the military's decision to remove the country’s first freely elected president—however disastrous and unpopular he was—rather than trust the tedious, frustrating processes known as democracy.
Michele Dunne is a vice president of the Atlantic Council and director of its Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.