As Egypt’s military-led government appears to be solidifying its gains, and Cairo largely succumbs to its harsh measures, talk of civil war has, for now, abated. One big reason for this is because in Egypt everything is negotiable.
An old Egypt hand told me this in 2011, when I moved there to work at the American University in Cairo. I thought his advice referred to navigating turbulent academic waters. I soon realized, however, that it applied to the entire country. Throughout my two years in Egypt, this advice helped me make sense of the head-snapping events taking place in the political arena. It can also help predict a likely outcome of Egypt’s current situation.
When everything is negotiable, there can be no fixed prices, or fixed principles. Opportunities for deals abound. This includes political support, alliances, ideologies — even constitutional articles. Mortal enemies one day are allies the next.
Instead of civil war, an “uncivil” war will likely ensue, a prolonged and fluid slow burn of unsavory power politics played out by the established elites — the generals, judiciary, Mubarak-era politicians and an as-yet-unformed iteration of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile the liberal groups, including Cairo’s intellectuals, will offer support and momentum for the right price. The line will likely never be crossed into civil war because the ultimate deal always beckons on the horizon.
No one stays on one side for long in Egypt. The past two and a half years is a tale of dramatic coalitions coming together (literally, in Tahrir Square) and then splintering into flimsy allegiances. All parties have sacrificed principles to advance short-term interests: the military has now twice cynically draped itself in the mantle of popular will; the Muslim Brotherhood has used the democratic electoral process to justify illiberal acts and defend its legitimacy; the liberals and secularists have piggy-backed on military authoritarianism to erase a political foe, and Egypt’s second largest (and more conservative) Islamist party, the Salafi Nour Party, is still supporting the interim government.