Violence in Egypt: Neither Algeria nor Syria

Whenever the spectre of a new rupture between the Egyptian ‘deep state’ and the Islamists comes up, the Algerian comparison inevitably rears its head. On the surface it makes sense, especially this time round: a mass Islamist movement is deprived of governing – a right it won through the standard democratic process – by a military and entrenched interests who cannot stomach the idea of such a change of order. The Islamists would cry foul and take to the hills vowing they will be back to wreak their terrible revenge.

Except in Egypt’s case there aren’t really any hills to flee to, and that’s one of the reasons there is a limit to the strength of any Islamist revolt and thus of the Algerian comparison. The country was there before, at the same time that Algeria’s civil war was kicking off in the early 1990s. The Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad were engaged in an entanglement with security forces that occasionally, and spectacularly, touched upon the lives of ordinary citizens or foreign tourists, via set-piece assassination attempts or attacks on tourists. But with few redoubts to hide in, no Kabyle or Awras mountains, for example, the revolt had limited impact and endurance. With a population squeezed into the Nile valley and Delta zone, Egypt is a relatively easy political space over which the modern state can impose control via its security solutions – which is one reason why the street politics of protest has taken off so spectacularly in recent years as an alternative means of challenging entrenched authority.

While the sugar cane fields of Upper Egypt were no match for those mountains ranges, and will not be in the future, the Sinai perhaps offer more options for insurgency. Indeed, the Sinai has been unstable since the Jan 25 uprising, with attacks on the Egypt-Israeli gas pipeline, operations staged against Israeli targets and Egyptian military and security targets, and since the ousting of Mursi it has witnessed the beginnings of actions that resemble what might be called an insurgency (IEDs against army targets). Yet still, fighting in the Sinai doesn’t really count for a civil war and the peninsula is a relatively isolated area surrounded by four armies (two of which have a fascistic mindset, while the other two are useless) who will happily coordinate to crush Islamist insurgents, though it would just take one successful suicide bomber to keep the tourists away from Sharm al-Sheikh and the other resorts.

Another factor militating against a repeat of the violence of Algeria’s civil war is that the Western interest in Egypt is much more significant than that ever to Algeria, which was left to stew in its horrors, bereft of a neighbour like Israel to command American attention. Also, Algeria’s FIS were relative newcomers to the political scene, which Chadli Benjadid had only recently opened up to multiparty politics, while Egypt’s Brotherhood has been engaged in the game since 1984, and for the past year it has been given a taste of power, albeit at the behest of the army and facing obstacles at every turn from various arms of the state. In other words, despite the vitriol spewed against them in the liberal and ancien regime media, the Brotherhood is a rather domesticated political beast. Some Salafi jihadis may want to spoil for a fight but the major Salafi party, Nour, is already part of the army’s movement to turf out the Brotherhood.

The Syrian example has also been cited over the past week with increasing frequency. Anti-Brotherhood spokesman insist that the Islamists want to provoke army violence against them in order to drag Egypt into a Syrian scenario. But why the government would resort to Scud missiles or mortar fire destruction of whole neighbourhoods to get at Brotherhood supporters who are scattered throughout the country, rather than ensconced in certain areas with a foreign-funded army, I really don’t see. The state and its numerous security and military arms are well capable of crushing such rebellious stirrings before it ever got to that level of rupture.

Late historian P.J. Vatikiotis once rather irritatingly called Egypt a “hydraulic state” (a phrase he probably got from Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism). It was a clumsy attempt to express the fact that state formation and authority had historically rested in Egypt on monopolization of water resources, and that the control imperative remained prominent for a highly-centralized polity whose prosperity and survival depended on managing the Nile flood. This climatic determinism came perilously close to suggesting Egyptians were passive Orientals who were happy with autocracy and oppression. But what it actually meant is that the kind of street activism that led to the 3rd century murder of mathematician Hypatia in 415 AD or the failed rebellion of the Gamaa Islamiya – or the street action that forced out Mubarak in 2011 – are more the form of political violence that the country witnesses – not the kind of protracted carnage associated with civil wars.

What could happen is that the military maintain a Mubarak-lite regime that has the trappings of democracy while the police state remains essentially intact. Western governments declare Egypt stable and international financial institutions do their business, yet thousands languish in jail – the figure was around 20,000 in the 1990s, and a similar figure for various categories of detainee has been put around for ‘stable’ Saudi Arabia today. That’s not civil war, but it’s bad enough.

It is 2013 and not 1993, however, and one reason for optimism perhaps is that it is not just police and state security in the front line of the conflict with Islamists today, it is the army itself, and the army will not want such a protracted entanglement that would damage its credentials. It would rather leave the dirty work to the security goons. Leftist and liberals would also not stand silent, or at least some of them. But again, that does not augur ‘civil war’. Not just Egypt but Egypt today is sui generis.

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