Friday’s chaos in the Sinai and protests in Cairo showed a current of the Egyptian revolution that many had feared would emerge at some point. In Cairo, liberal and Islamist activists had negotiated a joint protest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ continued use of military tribunals against civilians. However, when the liberals arrived, they found their signs being torn down and replaced with signs bearing Islamist slogans and a generally Islamist atmosphere prevailing. They announced their withdrawal, leaving the Salafists and Muslim Brothers free run in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, in the Sinai, “hundreds” of armed men on motorcycles, bearing black-and-white “No God But God” banners, drove into the city of El Arish, engaged in a shootout with police, and vandalized a statue of Sadat. They also blew up the natural gas pipeline to Israel for the fifth time since the events of January 25. This story has been drowned out in major media by the US debt crisis, but assuming America doesn’t default on its loans, this could actually have a much greater long-term impact.
The events in Cairo were a manifestation of growing tensions between the liberal and Islamist factions of the uprising that overthrew Mubarak. When Mubarak was there, they had a common cause–indeed, though January 25 is the date most associated with the protests, the events of January 28th–the first day of official Muslim Brotherhood participation–truly kicked off the revolution. With their enemy gone, the two groups are realizing more and more that they have little in common. The liberals want a healthy democracy with a secular legal code. The Islamists give lip service to democracy and equal rights, yet it is becoming quite obvious that this is a facade put on for the media (especially the English-language media). Friday’s crowds chanting for Sharia cannot be hidden. The Muslim Brotherhood is a big, diverse, ungainly organization. It was slow to respond to the revolts and is generally extremely cautious. It has an abundance of interests that demand political stability. However, there is a risk that it could slowly transform into a dominant political force willing to challenge all rivals. Friday’s events might be the day the snowball began to roll. Parallel to the Brotherhood are the Salafists, who emerged quite suddenly after the uprisings. Nobody should have been surprised–Egypt receives a number of Salafi satellite broadcasts–but their presence is very unsettling. A Salafi-influenced government in Egypt could make Iran look like Switzerland.
Islamist dominance in the new Egypt must overcome one major obstacle–the army. The leadership of Egypt’s army is stridently secular, and for decades has seen itself as the country’s last line of defense against Islamist reactionaries. The SCAF may protest that it is merely guarding the revolution until elections can take place, and that it is not taking sides, but it will not allow the Islamists to monopolize the political sphere. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is attempting to downplay the exclusiveness of Friday’s protests, because they are quite aware that they could be endangering themselves if they seem to be gaining too much influence. It’s becoming increasingly likely that the SCAF will acquiesce to liberal demands for a delay of elections; indeed, their decision on the matter of elections will be a key signal of their assertiveness or lack thereof. There is an unspoken fear among all non-Islamist parties that the well-organized Islamist factions will have a shock victory, provoking a crackdown and potentially horrifying consequences–in other words, a repeat of the Algerian Civil War.
The Sinai events are just as disturbing. As I’ve discussed before, the region is a big trouble spot for Egypt, with Islamic extremists, disaffected Bedouins, international terrorist groups, and a wide range of transnational organized criminal networks moving about with remarkable ease despite the many military checkpoints. There’s a longstanding worry that the area’s multitude of problems could coalesce into an insurgency. This would ensure that the army will continue to be the dominant force in Egypt’s politics, and the need to bring in extra troops to stop the insurgents could provoke tensions with Israel. Mass flows of weapons into the region would also undoubtedly be diverted to Gaza, the West Bank, the Nile Valley, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and so forth, creating risks of new conflicts in new places while underwriting deeper criminal penetration and corruption.
The destruction of the pipeline, which has not had gas flowing all month anyway, is really the dot to the exclamation point. Egypt’s failure to secure the pipeline has Israel rushing to develop natural gas fields off its coast, provoking a spat with Lebanon, and it has Jordan in very dire straits and looking for new energy sources on all fronts. If gas exports from Egypt become impossible, it will be another strain on Egypt’s permanently unsteady economy.
With a Friday like that, we can be certain that Egypt woke up on Saturday with quite a hangover indeed; only time will tell what misadventures next week will bring.