In Egypt, you have the army and the secularists arrayed against the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. But now a “third force” is emerging that will complicate matters enormously and could lead to a total breakdown of civil society.
Desperate citizens who have watched as roving gangs of Islamists ravage their neighborhoods have formed vigilante groups who are becoming a force allied with the military. It is their violent tendencies and unpredictability that makes them a wild card in the bloodletting going on in the streets of Cairo.
The scene at Al Fatih mosque was a sign that vigilante groups, some known as popular committees, were rising in neighborhoods to support the army against the Brotherhood. Their presence reveals how perilous Egypt has become at a time when the military is casting Islamists as terrorists in a public relations war over the country’s future.
The government-sanctioned popular committees appeared Friday in Cairo, setting up barricades and guarding neighborhoods with knives and clubs. They are reminiscent of the armed men and boys who roamed the streets in the security breakdown during the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The formation of the latest committees was called for by Rebel, a youth movement that has backed the army’s takeover of the country.
For much of the day, security forces did not prevent mobs from massing around the mosque or from beating Brotherhood followers as they exited the building and were hurried toward police trucks. Those in the crowd, mostly young men, brimmed with rage, many of them shaped by an us-against-them nationalism perpetuated by the military in recent weeks.
It was unclear, though, whether the new government would be able to control the mobs as Egypt becomes more fragmented and bitter over a disastrous economy as well as political divisions. There is danger of increasing conflicts between vigilantes and militias attached to the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, including extremists, such as the militants in the Sinai Peninsula.
“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” said Hamdi Abdelgelil, who stood in the courtyard of the mosque as men with sticks pummeled a man attempting to leave. “Beat him, beat him,” they chanted as the man retreated back inside, running up stairs that were speckled with blood.
“This is not Egypt. Where is the security?” said Abdelgelil, shaking his head. “These people [the army] are supposed to be our masters, but we look like barbarians.”
“This is the Brotherhood’s fault,” men around him yelled.
Some of this is eerily reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970’s and 80’s. Checkpoints are being set up, the factionalization of the country is leading to increased violence that can’t be controlled by security forces stretched to the limit already, and the presence of a weak central government that can’t control the streets.
It’s a free-for-all that threatens to descend into chaos.
The army has not intervened — yet. The interior ministry forces, led by the police and non-uniformed auxiliaries, have been responsible for security. How long can the army stay sidelined?
The head of Egypt’s military says the army will not stand by silently in the face of violence after hundreds of people were killed during the country’s recent political unrest.
He spoke as an Islamist alliance opposed to the military’s ouster of president Mohamed Morsi called off a planned rally in Cairo due to security concerns.
Army Chief General Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi said the army has no intention to seize power and called on Islamists to join the political process. In his first public comments since last week’s crackdown against protest camps, he told military and police officers his message to pro-Morsi supporters is that “there is room for everyone in Egypt.”
Earlier, Egyptian security forces raided the homes of Muslim Brotherhood members, detaining mid-level officials and field operatives in several cities in an apparent attempt to cripple the group’s protest plans.
The Brotherhood, and the broader Anti-Coup Alliance, had said they would hold mass rallies in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo and in other cities across Egypt. But an alliance spokeswoman said the Cairo march was cancelled “for security reasons.”
The cabinet is discussing whether to ban the Muslim Brotherhood altogether, rather than break their grip on power. It should be recalled that despite charges of voter fraud in the parliamentary election, a clear majority of Egyptians preferred the Islamists and their salafist allies in the Nour Party. Nour has largely sat out the current crisis, preferring to support the government against their long-time rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood. But their share of the vote in the election was less than 25% and any future vote without the Muslim Brotherhood would break the hold that Islamists currently have on the ballot box.
The government worries that banning the Brotherhood might garner them some sympathy. But if the violence continues, and the government can keep blaming the Brotherhood for the bloodshed, there won’t be much sympathy from a population fearful of security breakdowns.