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Is Egypt Headed Back Toward Civil War?

If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

Nor is the military limiting its crackdown to Islamists. It is also jailing more secular pro-democracy activists and bloggers who led the original demonstrations that overthrow Hosni Mubarak.

Already there are signs of a backlash against the military crackdown. A few days ago the police headquarters in the town of Mansour was leveled by a bomb, killing at least 14 people. That brings the toll of police officers killed since August to more than 150. As the New York Times notes, “The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.”

And it is not just police officers who are being targeted. Recently a crude pipe bomb went off on a public bus in Cairo, injuring at least five.

These are small, early signs of how the Brotherhood and other, even more extreme Islamists are capable of hitting back against the security forces, and they run the risk of expanding into a higher level of violence that will make it impossible for the generals to revive the Egyptian economy, which depends so heavily on tourism. (Would you travel to Egypt today with your kids?)

Field Marshal Sisi, Egypt’s actual ruler today, and his subordinates in the military hierarchy appear to be punch drunk from the wave of affection that greeted their usurpation of power last summer. At that point the people of Egypt were sick of Brotherhood mismanagement and open to a more effective, secular alternative. Even many Brotherhood leaders saw that they were losing popularity and were no doubt open to some kind of accommodation with the military. By taking such a hard line, however, the military is pressing its luck and risking sending Egypt down the vortex of civil strife.


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