The latest bloodshed in Cairo underscores worrying trends and emerging realities regarding Egypt’s internal security and political future. The recent clashes in the vicinity of Cairo’s Abbasseya Square illustrate the readiness of prominent political groups to forcefully impose their views, demands, and ideologies as they battle for the country’s new identity. Sadly for Egypt, this process has just begun and is not likely to end anytime soon; indeed, the bloody volatility in Egypt has not subsided since the events of January 2011.
Under these circumstances – from a security point of view – what is most important to note here is how the volatile political situation directly translates into an erosion of the security condition on the ground. Violence in downtown Cairo is often centered on political disputes, involving opposing factions, who are more prone to resolve their differences by force, as they believe this the most optimum course of action to achieve their goals.
While protests and scuffles are daily routines in the post-Mubarak Egypt, more violent and deadly skirmishes are relatively less frequent, yet are a recurring phenomenon every few months. In reference to a timeline: security forces stormed and cleared out Tahrir square in August of last year. In October, demonstrators clashed with military police outside the Maspero building in Cairo, killing some 25 people.
In November, clashes in Tahrir Square between security forces and an influx of protesters killed some 23 people. Also, clashes between rival football clubs – and political rivals – killed some 79 people in early February. This was followed by an escalation in protests in front of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, which led to five-days of stone-throwing skirmishes in the streets surrounding the government building. In all the above cases, the clashes were politically motivated or involved politically oriented factions who were fighting for the supremacy of their respective agendas. To that point, in a majority of these cases – it was liberal protesters, not Islamists, who battled with security personnel.
In that sense, the killing of 14 people in Abbasseya on May 2 was merely the latest incident in a string of violent clashes, which are unlikely to subside anytime soon. As opposed to previous cases of unrest, this was the first time that ‘unidentified men’ loyal to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), attacked a group of mainly Salafi-Islamists who had been protesting outside the building over the disqualification of their presidential hopeful, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail.
This is likely the first indication that the secularly-oriented military is gearing up for the true battle for Egypt: the one with radical Islamists.
Military supporters, angry with Salafist intentions and their apathy towards Egypt’s military rulers, most likely attacked their Islamist rivals as a show of strength and to force the abandonment of the ongoing protests in front of the Ministry of Defense. No less worrying however, is the fact that their opponents are not timid when it comes to escalating the violence as well.
With that in mind, both SCAF and the Salafis are merely supporting actors in Egypt’s larger picture. The most dominant force in the struggle for the identity of post-revolutionary Egypt remains the Muslim Brotherhood. Their predominance is noted by all parties, who are all seeking to pry them into their own ideological spheres. The Salafis, mainly the al-Noor party, are vying to pull the Brotherhood into adopting a more hard-line Islamist approach, while the military, in addition to leftist and liberal parties strive to bring the party to a more moderate and less ideological platform. Unfortunately for the West and those hopeful for a new and pluralist Egypt, liberal groups will not have much of an impact in swaying the Brotherhood, given their marginal status in the Egyptian political system. The radical Salafis on the other hand, are likely to have greater successes, while the military too has yet to say its final word.
Under these circumstances, protests are likely to continue in the coming weeks, especially ahead of the coming elections for the republic’s presidency. The elections will signal an end to the first stage of the transitional period following Mubarak’s ouster; however by no means are Egypt’s troubles over. Egypt has been ruled by a handful of dictators since its independence from Great Britain in the first half of the 20th century, but the mind-set of enforcing political opinions upon others has not disappeared and is unlikely to anytime soon. For this reason, even after elections are over, violence may still be used to influence rivals, settle disputes, and impose political prowess. The outcome of such fighting holds a gloomy future for a country which not long ago was the leader of the Arab world.
Ron Gilran and Daniel Brode are Intelligence Analysts with Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East